The Status of Sunnah in Islam

By Mohammed Nasir-ul-Deen Al-Albani (May Allah have mercy on him)

Original translation into English by A. R. M. Zerruque
Revival of Islamic Heritage Society Translation Committee


Praise be to Allah; benediction and peace be on the messenger of Allah, his family, his companions and his adherents. This is a lecture which I delivered in the city of Doha, the capital of Qatar, in the blessed month of Ramadhan 1392 A.H. Some of my friends have suggested to me to publish my lecture on account of need of the Muslims to a work of its kind. In response to their request, I am printing it for general propagation on account of its advantage, having regard for the reminiscences and history. I have added some separate titles to assist the reader to collect the main ideas. I pray to Allah, the Mighty, the Glorious, to write me among those who defend their religion and those who help to enact the law; and to reward me for it. Surely, He is most generous in responding to my prayer.

This was written in the city of Damascus 22 Muharram-al-Haram 1394 A.H.

The Status of Sunnah in Islam: A Declaration That it Cannot Dispense With the Qur'an

All Praise be to Allah, we praise Him, seek His help and His forgiveness. We seek refuge with Allah from the evils of our souls, and evils of our deeds. One whom Allah guides, none can lead him astray, and one Who misguides, non can guide him. I bear witness that there is no god but Allah, and I bear witness that Mohammed, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, is His servant and his messenger.

"O you who believe. Fear Allah truly, and don't die except in the state of Islam"(3:102)

"O Men fear your Lord who created you from one soul, and created its partner, and from them spread men and women in numbers. Take care, Allah will question you about it and the kinship. Surly, Allah is ever watchful of your deeds." (4:1)

"O those who believe. Fear Allah and say what is correct so that it fits you. He will forgive your sins. Whoever obeys Allah and His messenger that is a great achievement." (33:70-71)

The best of speech is the speech of Allah, that is the Book of Allah. The best of guidance is the guidance of Mohammed. Of all matters, the worst are innovation; and everything new is an innovation, and every innovation is a deviation, and every deviation leads to Hell-fire.

I do not think that I will be able to offer this high ranking assembly especially when there are the distinguished Ulama (scholars) and professors present - some knowledge which has not been dealt with before. If what I think is true, I will rest contented that my address will be a reminder, as it says in the Qur'an "Remind, for the reminder would benefit the believers." (51:55).

I do not think that my talk in this blessed month of Ramadhan, the month of importance, is an exposition of something of its merits, rules and their practice, and the like, which generally the preachers and instructors touch on, on account of the benefit they give to the listeners, and procure for them good and blessing; but I have chosen my talk to be a study of a general nature, surely, it is one of the roots of the Shari'ah (Islamic Law). It is a declaration of the importance attached to Sunnah in the Islamic law.

The Role of Sunnah Towards the Qur'an

You all know that Allah, the Blessed and Mighty, chose Mohammed , salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, as His prophet and picked him to deliver the final message. The Qur'an was revealed to him and commanded him to obey all what He had ordered him to do, that is, to expound His message to the people. Allah says: "We have revealed to you the Reminder (the Qur'an) to expound to people what was revealed to them." (16:44).

I think that the declaration mentioned in the verse contains two orders:

First: Declaration of the word and its arrangement. It is the communication of the Qur'an and its non concealment, and its pursuit to mankind just as Allah, the Blessed Almighty has revealed to the heart of the prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, which is the intent of His saying "O messenger proclaim what is revealed to you from your Lord" (5:67). Sayyida Ayesha, may Allah be pleased with her, is reported to have said "Whoever says that Mohammed , salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, concealed something which he was commanded to communicate, it is a great calumny against Allah." Then she read the above mentioned verse. (Bukhari and Muslim have stated it).

And according to the narration of Muslim she also said : "If the messenger of Allah, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, had concealed something which he was commanded to communicate, he would have concealed the saying of the Almighty: "Behold thou didst say to one who had received the grace of Allah and thy favor: Keep your wife to yourself and fear Allah. But thou didst hide in thy heart that which Allah was about make manifest; you did fear the people, whereas Allah had a better right that you should fear Him." (33:37).

Second: The explanation of the meaning of the word or sentence or verse for which man needs an explanation, most of which bear reference to Mujmal (comprehensive) verses or Amah (general) verses of Mutlaq (unbounded) verses.

Then comes the Sunnah and clarifies the sentences and specifies the verses called Amah and defines what is Mutlaq that is, in reference to the saying ( Qaul ) of the prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, his deed ( Fi'l ) and the act he confirmed (Iqrar ).

The Necessity of Sunnah to Understand the Qur'an and Parables on that

Allah says "The male thief and female thief cut off their hands" (5:38) is a fitting example of that. The thief in it is general like the hand.

The oral tradition explains the first of them and restricts it by 'as-sareq' (the thief) who steals something worth a fourth of 'Dinar' (currency unit) according to a saying of the prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, "There is no cutting - of the hand - unless the thing stolen is worth a fourth of Dinar or more". (Bukhari & Muslim) the two shiekhs have recorded this hadeeth.

Again, the other is explained by the action of the prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, or the action of his companions and his conformation. They used to cut the hand of the thief from the wrist as is known in the work of hadeeth. The oral tradition explains the hand mentioned in the verse on Tayammum (dust ablution) "And rub therewith your faces and hands." (5:6) is also the palm of the hand as is stated in a hadeeth "Tayammum is the wiping of the face and the hands." recorded by the two shaikhs and Ahmad and others from a tradition reported by Ammar bin Yasir, may Allah be pleased with them.

There are other verses which cannot be completely understood except through Sunnah. They are:

1. "It is those who believe and confuse not their beliefs with wrong, 'dhulm' that are (truly) in security for they are on (right) guidance." (6:82)

The companions of the prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, understood the word 'dhulm' in its general sense to mean every wrong doing, even if it be little. On this account the verse is regarded as dubious and they said: "O messenger of Allah, which of us did not involve his faith with obscurity?" He, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, said: "It is not that. It is only the 'shirk' (disbelief). Have you not heard what Luqman said: "Verily, shirk is a great dhulm (sin)" (31 :13). The two shaikhs have recorded it with others.

2. Allah says: "When you travel on earth, there is no blame on you to shorten your prayer, for fear the unbelievers may persecute you." (4:101). It is obvious from this verse that fear is a prerequisite for the shortening of prayers. Some of the prophet companions asked him: "Why do we shorten our prayers while we feel safe." He said: "It is a charity from Allah, so accept it." (Muslim).

3. Allah says: "The carcass and its blood are forbidden to you" (5:3). In explanation of this verse, the corpse of locusts, fish, the livers, spleen of blood are lawful. So the prophet said: "He has made two dead things and blood lawful: the locusts and the fish, the liver and the spleen.".

Baihaqi and others have recorded it as 'marfu' type of hadeeth (a hadeeth with a complete chain of narrators to the prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam) as also 'mauquf' type (a hadeeth with a completer chain of narrators to one of the companions of the prophet). The isnad of mauquf is authentic and it is as good as marfu tradition, since it is not stated in the form of 'rae' (decision based on one's individual judgment not on Qur'an and Sunnah).

4. Allah says: "I find not in the message received by me by inspiration any (food) forbidden to be taken by one who wishes to, unless it is dead meat or blood poured forth or the flesh of swine, for it is an abomination, or what is impious (meat) on which a name has been invoked other than Allah's." (6:145).

The Sunnah has forbidden many things not mentioned in the verse mentioned above, as for example in the saying of the prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam: "All predatory animals with tusk and every bird with claw are forbidden for consumption." There are other traditions which have forbidden the consumption of such animals as the prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, is reported to have said on the day of Khayber: "Allah and His messenger have prohibited the consumption of domesticated asses, for they are filth." The two shaikhs (Bukhri and Muslim) have reported it.

5. Allah says: "Who has forbidden the adornment of Allah which He has produced for His servants, and the things clean and pure (which He has provided for sustenance)." (7:32).

The Sunnah, too, has forbidden some adornments, and this is evident from the prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, who is reported to have met some of his companions, and had a silk garment in one hand, and gold in the other, and said: "These are prohibited to Muslim males, lawful to females." The hadeeths in their interpretation are many and well-known in both the authentic collections of hadeeths, and others and the like of many examples will-known to scholars familiar with hadeeth and Islamic Jurisprudence.

From what has been stated above, O Muslim brethren, you can see the importance attached to Sunnah in Islamic Law. When we divert our intention again to the examples mentioned beside others not mentioned, we are certain that there is no way to understand the Qur'an correctly except in association with the interpretation of the Sunnah.

In the first example, the understanding of the 'sahabah' of 'dhulm' mentioned in the verse is on its general sense, despite the fact that they, may Allah be pleased with them, as stated by Ibn Masud: "The best of this community, most pious, profound in learning, least of dissimulation". Yet with all that they erred in their understanding of that.

Were it not for the prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, who held them back from their mistaken notion, and made them take the step in the right direction in that the correct meaning of dhulm in the context is shirk (association of partnership with Allah), we too would have followed in their wrong thinking. Allah, the Blessed and the Most High saved us from that wrong notion by the grace of the right direction of the prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, and his Sunnah.

In the second example – with Allah's guidance – if not for the hadeeth mentioned above, we would have been in doubt at least with regard to the shortening of prayer (qasr assalat) during a journey while secure - if we did stipulate the condition of fear as obvious in the verse-, till the companions saw the prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, shorten the prayers when it was safe and secure.

In the third example, if not for the hadeeth, we would have forbidden ourselves the consumption of good things made lawful to us; locusts, fish, liver, and the spleen.

In the fourth example, if not for the hadeeths, some of which we have mentioned, we would have considered lawful what Allah has made unlawful through the dictum of the holy prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, like predatory animals, and the birds which have claws.

And so is the fifth example, if not for the hadeeths in regard to this question, we would have considered lawful what Allah has prohibited through the words of His prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, like gold and silk.

It is for this, some forbearers (As-salaf) say that Sunnah pronounces judgment of the Book (the Qur'an).

The Deviation of those who are Satisfied with the Qur'an to the Exclusion of Hadeeth

It is a matter of regret that according to the interpretation found in the works of some commentators and modern authors, that it is permissible to do what is stated in the last two examples.

Consumption of the predatory animals, and the wearing of gold and silk by referring their interpretation only to the Quran.

Today, a sect exists, called "Quranites" who comment according to their whims and fancies; without seeking the explanation of the authentic Sunnah. They only accept and follow the Sunnah which suit their desires, the rest they throw behind. The prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, is reported to have said that:"None of you reclines on his bed, the order comes to him on an affair which I am commanded to do or not to do He says: 'I don't know, what is found in the Book of Allah, we follow.' " (narrated by Tirmithi). According to another report: "... 'What is found in the Book of Allah as 'haram' (forbidden) we pronounce it haram. Surely, I am given the Qur'an and its example with it." Yet, according to another report: "What the messenger of Allah has forbidden, Allah has prohibited it.".

It is a matter of regret that one renowned scholar has written a book on Islamic Law and its dogma, and in its preface, he says that he has written it and that he has made reference only to the Qur'an.

This true hadeeth gives positive evidence that the divine Law of Islam - As-Shariah – is not mere Qur'an, but Qur'an and Sunnah. Therefore, whoever hold fast to one source for reference to the exclusion of the other, he held fast to none of them, since both complement each other. The Qur'an says "Whoever obeys the messenger, obeys Allah". Allah says: "No, by your Lord they do not believe until they submit to your adjudication in all disputes between them, then they do not find themselves oppressed with your decisions and they completely submit" (4:65). Again, Allah says: "When a matter has been decided by Allah and His messenger, it does not behave a believer, man or woman to have choice in their matter. One who disobeys Allah and His messenger, he is indeed on a clearly wrong Path." (33:36). Furthermore, Allah says: "What the messenger teaches you, take it; and what he forbids you, avoid doing it." (59:7).

In connection with this verse, I am marveled by what is corroborated by Ibn Masud, may Allah be pleased with him, that is, a woman came to him and told him: "You who says: 'May Allah's curse be on 'Al-Namisat#' and 'Al-Motanamisat'# and those who tattoo.' He said: 'Yes'. She said: 'I read the Book of Allah (the Quran) from its beginning to its end. I did not find what you have said.' He told her: 'If you have read it, you would have found it. As for your reading the saying of Allah azza wa jall:"What the messenger teaches you, take it, and what he forbids you, avoid doing it". She said: 'Certainly'. He said: 'I have heard the messenger of Allah, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, says: 'May Allah's curse be on Al-Namisat.' (Bukhari & Muslim).

(#) Namisah: a woman who plucks hers or others eye-brows - to be a thin line - to seek beauty. Such an act is forbidden. It is a mean to change the form of Allah's creation.
Motanamisah: a woman who asks others to do it for her.

Inadequacy of Philology to Understand the Qur'an

From what has been stated above, it is clear that there is no scope for anyone with all his Arabic scholarship to understand the glorious Qur'an, without the help of the Sunnah of the prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, his sayings and actions.

The companions of the prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, were the most knowledgeable in the language, which the Qur'an was revealed in, when it was not blemished by the incorrectness of the common folks language or their grammatical mistakes. Yet, they erred in understanding the verses quoted above when they relied on their language alone.

It is self evident that a man well-informed of the Sunnah is more appropriate to understand the Qur'an and deduce the rules from it than one, who is ignorant of it. How can it be a source to one, who does not reckon it, and does not make reference to it ?.

For this reason, it is part of the rules agreed upon among the learned that Qur'an should be interpreted by The Qur'an itself as well as by the Sunnah, then by the sayings of the Sahabah... etc.

It is here that the cause of deviation of scholastic theologians (Ahlu-el-Kalam) becomes clear, both ancient and modern, and their opposition to the forebears 'As-salaf', may Allah be pleased with them, in their doctrines not to speak of their laws. They are far from Sunnah, and knowledge of it, and rely on their intelligence and desires to decide on the verses of attributes and others.

What is best is what was written down in the exposition of Tahawi's doctrine (page 212 fourth edition):

"When one is not well-informed of the Book and Sunnah, what would he say about the Fundamentals of Religion (usulu-d-din) ? He only receives the assertion of someone. If he says that he takes it from The Book of Allah, he does not study the commentary of the Qur'an on the basis of prophetic traditions, and reflects over it, nor what the companions (Sahabah), and the following generation narrated, which is transmitted to us from the authorities whom the critics chose. They have not transmitted the system and arrangement of the Qur'an, but its poetic expression and meaning. They did not learn the Qur'an like children but studied it with meaning. One who does not follow in their footsteps, speaks on his own accord. One who does that thinks it be the religion of Allah, and does not study the Book of Allah, he sins, even if he is right. One who studies The Qur'an and the Sunnah, he is rewarded, even if he goes wrong, but if he is right in his opinion, his reward is doubled." .

Then he says (page 217):

"What is obligatory, is submission to the messenger, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, carrying out his saying and accepting his saying with satisfaction and belief without contradicting it with false ideas called 'apprehensive faculty' (Ma'qul) bearing doubt or complaint, or offering the opinions of men and the garbage of their intellect. We unite with the prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, in judgment, submission, obedience and compliance, just as we have unison with Allah, glory be to Him by worshipping Him by humility, submissiveness, repentance and reliance".

In short, what is obligatory on all Muslims is that they do not separate between Qur'an and Sunnah; whereas, it is obligatory to take both of them and to formulate the law on both of them.

This is a safeguard for them, so that they won't fall right or left; and that they won't fall back in error as explained by the prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam : "I leave behind me two things. You will never go astray if you hold fast to them: the Quran and my Sunnah".

CAUTION: It is self evident after this that I say:

The Sunnah which has an important bearing on Islamic Law is only the Sunnah confirmed by scientific channels, and authentic chains of narrations known to the learned in regard to hadeeths and the background of the narrators.

It is not the one, which is found in different works of Tafseers (commentaries of the Qur'an) and Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), and in different writings of longing, intimidation, advice, and admonitions, etc...

They contain weak, spurious, and fabricated hadeeths, of which, Islam absolves, like the story of 'Harut and Marut': and the story of 'gharanik'. I have a special letter which makes it void and it is printed. A major part of it is recorded in two huge books namely "A chain of weak and fabricated hadeeths and their evil impact on the community".(Their number up to date have reached approximately four thousand hadeeths.)

It is obligatory on the learned, especially those who spread their knowledge of fiqh and legal opinions among the public, that they shouldn't dare to argue with hadeeth unless it is well-attested. Books of jurisprudence, which they refer to, are normally filled with traditions which are not wellattested nor have any bases, as it is well-known to the learned.

I have begun an important project, and I think it will be of use to those occupied with jurisprudence, and I will name it: "Weak and Fabricated Hadeeths in the Major Jurisprudence 'Fiqh' Books", by which I mean:

  1. Al-Hidayah, by Al-Marghinani, in Hanafi fiqh.
  2. Al-Modawwanah, by Ibnil-Qasim, in Maliki fiqh.
  3. Sharhul-wajeez, by Al-rafiee, in Shafiee fiqh.
  4. Al-Mughni, by Ibn Quddamah, in Hanbali fiqh.
  5. Bidayatul Mujtahid,'by Ibn Rushd-al-Andalusi, in comparative fiqh.

I regret that I didn't get the opportunity to finish it, because the journal "Al-Wa'e-al-lslami" of Kuwait which promised to publish it, when perused it, didn't print it.

Although I missed this opportunity, perhaps I will succeed on another occasion, Allah willing, to offer to my brethren occupied with jurisprudence a precise learned course to help them to facilitate their knowledge of the different categories of hadeeth with reference to various sources from books on hadeeth, with an explanation of its special nature and character and reliance on them. Allah is the source of success.

Weakness of the Hadeeth of Muadh in the Opinion and its Disapproval

Before I conclude my talk , I think I must direct the attention of brethren present to a well known hadeeth. It is devoid of one of the books of jurisprudence on account of its weakness in respect of its chain of narrators (isnad) and its contradiction with what we have concluded in this talk, regarding the illegitimacy of discrimination in law between the Quran and Sunnah; and the necessity of taking both. It is hadeeth of Muadh bin Jabal, may Allah be pleased with him, that the prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, said to him when he sent him to Yemen: "By what source will you decide ?" He said: "By the books of Allah" He then asked: "If you don't find any guidance ?". He said: "By the Sunnah of his messenger" He then asked again :"And if you don't find any guide ?". He said :" I will make an effort to form my own opinion." He said: "Praise be to Allah who make success the effort of the envoy of the messenger of Allah, to what the prophet likes."

As of the weakness of it's isnad, there is no scope for its explanation now. But I have explained it clearly in the above mentioned book chain.

It would suffice now to mention that the Commander of the Believers in the hadeeth 'Imam Al-Bukhari', may Allah have mercy on him, says that the hadeeth is not recognized (munkar). After this I am permitted to begin to explain the conflict which I pointed.

The tradition of Muadh gives the ruler a method of three stages which does not permit to search for any rule with regard to 'Rae' (personal opinion) except that he does not find it in the Sunnah, nor in the Sunnah except that after he does not find it in the Qur'an. It is in relation to Rae a genuine method with all the learned (Ulama), so that they say: "Where there is a tradition relating the deeds and utterances of the prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, personal opinion is void". But in relation to Sunnah, it is not true, because Sunnah dictates the Qur'an and clarifies its doctrines. It is then essential to search for a ruling in Sunnah, even if he thinks it is found in the Qur'an as we have mentioned it.

Sunnah is not with the Qur'an in the same manner as Rae with the Sunnah. No, definitely not. It is rather necessary to regard Qur'an and Sunnah as being one source with no discrimination between the two whatsoever. This is indicated in a saying of the prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, : "Certainly I have come with the Qur'an and its like (meaning the Sunnah)". He said: "They are never departed until they come to the Basin#".The compilation mentioned between them is not correct because the separation between them is void as we have explained.

(#) the Basen: Arabic Al-Hawdh, a very large pond that Allah azza wa jall gave to the prophet, salla Allah u alihi wa sallam, from which the believers will drink before entering the Jannah.

This is what I wish to draw attention to. If I am right, it is from Allah; if wrong, it is from me. I ask Allah Almighty to protect us and you from errors and from all that displeases Him. I conclude my praising by Alhamdu lillahi rabbil alameen - Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.


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