In the Name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful

Sunnah - the misconceived dogma that poisoned Islam

Published in Daily News Monitoring Service on December 12, 2004

Too frequently, the Muslim scholars quote Sir George Bernard Shaw and refer his book -'The Genuine Islam". The paragraph that most often appears in their works reads: "I have always held the religion of Muhammad in high estimation because of its wonderful vitality. It is the only religion which appears to me to possess that assimilating capacity to the changing phase of existence which can make itself appeal to every age. I have studied him - the wonderful man and in my opinion far from being an anti-Christ, he must be called the Savor of Humanity." [Vol. 1, No. 8, 1936.]

Bernard Shaw, with an exuberant mood after studying Prophet Muhammad and Islam, perhaps tracked his memory back to the history of medieval Christianity and compared its malignant immoralities and debauchery with the nobility and brotherhood of early Islam. He must have read that a year before Prophet Muhammad's death, the Prophet made his last pilgrimage from Medina to Mecca. There He gave a great sermon to his people that breathed a spirit of generosity amongst all the people of Arabia and beyond. The Muslims created a society more free from the widespread cruelty and social oppression than any society had ever been in the world before.

In contrast, the 'Bull' of Pope Innocent III causing the massacre of 20,000 men, women and children (Albigenses) in France and the nailing of Martin Luther's 95 questions on the Church door in Germany, it stretches a long period in between. The European society passed through a massive reform during this time. The reform movement of Peter Waldo of France, John Wycliffe of England, Jan Hus of Bohemia (Czech), Girolamo Savonarola of Italy, Michael Servetus of Spain, Ulrich Zwingli of Switzerland, William Tyndale of England and hundred others must have influenced Bernard Shaw to lean heavily towards the fairness of early Islam - the Islam that Prophet Muhammad once preached. Obviously, Bernard Shaw could visualize the life of those pioneering reformers of Christianity who were murdered, robbed, tortured, raped and burned to death for their believing Christianity differently from the religious conviction concocted by the church.

But little did Bernard Shaw know that the falsehood and tyranny of religious dogmas that once poisoned Christianity in Europe, stealthily crept into Islam after the death of the Prophet. Stoning to death, apostasy (execution for renunciation of religious faith), and the "Bull" were the earth-shaking tool for the Christendom prior to the formation of Martin Luther's Protestant denomination of Christianity. Those venomous dogmas are strikingly forceful today in some Islamic countries and are still being contended by the Mullahs for their incorporation in these days. In fact, the "Bull" was a system of expressing Papal ordinance to anyone in the Christendom to explain before a religious court. The carbon copy of the "Bull" of Christianity is the "Fatwa" in Islam today.

The word "Sunnah", up to the time of Prophet Muhammad, meant the practices of antiquity especially in Yathrib - the city that had been ruled by the early Jews since 66 AD who took shelter there to escape the massacre in Jerusalem by the Romans. Ironically, Prophet Muhammad too took shelter there to save himself and his followers from the tyranny of the Meccans. The name Yathrib eventually got changed to Madinatun-Nabi (The City of the Prophet) and in short Medina.

At the beginning, Islam's uncompromising monotheism was believed to be pivoted on the words of God, revealed to Prophet Muhammad - as opposed to any personal words of teachings similar to Buddha or Jesus. But the dogmas of Sunnah soon acquired a different significance after the time of the Prophet. Particularly from the ninth century it came to denote the practices of Prophet Muhammad including whatever he said, did, or approved during his time. Being elevated to the holiness with the same divinity as the Koran, the doctrine of Sunnah has substantially turned Islam into a figure worshipper. Consequently, this personality cult ensued war among its people and effectively derailed Islam from its initial dedication to preventing widespread cruelty and social oppression.

The Hadith literature - the source of the Sunnah, is imposingly believed to be the words of Prophet Muhammad, passed through his companions. While purportedly made in the name of the Prophet, a number of these sayings can actually be traced to Zoroastrian culture, the Christian Bible and even the laws and rituals of the Byzantine. In a manner of speaking, the limited legislation in the Koran, basically the rules in regard to marriage, divorce, inheritances, orphans, food and a few others occupy very little room in the whole canon of Sharia Laws. A vast bulk of it comes from the Sunnah and significantly from Bukhari, concocted and recorded about 200 years after the death of the Prophet. Evidently, deeply merged in it, are the arbitrary laws, induced by the Muslim emperors and kings of their own as they could not successfully invoke to settle questions arising in such diverse categories as systematic and moral theology, ritual, civil and military laws, etc.

Right from the inception, the Hadith literature presents the rational readers with contradictory statements. Whether it was permissible to write down traditions of the prophet in the early days of Islam is a serious question. Abu Huraira, a late convert to Islam and a companion of the Prophet, narrated nearly 3,500 Hadith. This prolific narrator of Hadith stated in one Hadith that the Prophet, once observing his followers writing down his sayings, gave them a resolute warning to refrain from such a venture. He then cited the evils of making religious books out of the personal sayings of previous Prophets. Finally he told them: "Do you not know that nothing but the writing of books beside the book of God led astray the peoples that were before you?" Even in one Hadith of Abu Huraira, evidently the sayings of the prophet, compiled before this warning, were heaped together and burned.

While the Koran dictates the companions of the prophet to "Obey God and obey His Messenger": (Koran: 04.059), the rediscovering of the Hadith, despite being prohibited by the Prophet himself, is extremely mind boggling. Most importantly, its incorporation in the Islamic laws and rituals, tantamount to defiance of the Koranic decree "Obey His messenger". But ironically, such a defiance, though otherwise is a sin, seems to have turned into a "holy act" in the resolution of those early Imams who reshaped Islam with their love and inclination to human worshipping. During the ninth and tenth century, however, the reshaping of Islam was more for administrative connivance. Evidently, the wrinkles of Islam are too many today to iron out.

Quite often, the Ulemas and the Islamists quote the Koran and point out the verses where "Obey God, and obey the Messenger" appear. They then try to rationalize the incorporation of the Sunnah in the Islamic paradigm as consistent with the Koranic message - i.e. "obey the Messenger". Surely, the presence of such verses in the Koran is quite relevant and justified because Prophet Muhammad wasn't just a prophet, he was a commander, a judge, a leader, a ruler, a teacher and a preacher. Obviously, obeying his order and direction was of paramount importance for all of his companions, soldiers and people in his time. Besides, none could "Obey God" unless they "obey the Messenger" in believing what God had dictated to him. Plainly put, this phrase, "obey the Prophet" does not construe that every word he ever said is sacred and indicates perpetuity for all time.

There is a verse that offers a definitive clarity as to the misinterpretations of the phrase "obey the Messenger" as decreed in the Koran. No doubt, this misinterpretation has derailed Islam from its initial orbit for more than a millennium. The full text of the verse reads: "O you who believe! Obey God, and obey the Messenger, and those in charged with authority among you. If you differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to God and His Messenger" [004.059].

Keeping historical events in mind, one must not interpret that "refer it to God and His Messenger" means the Koran and the Hadith. The Koran was not even compiled when the prophet was alive and most Hadith literature was not collected until two hundred years after his death. Besides, papers and printing press were not present at that time to offer easy access of the Koran and the Hadith to every hand of the Muslims.

Obviously, the phrase - "refer it to God and His Messenger" clearly indicates those relatives, companions, and friend of the Prophet that were around him. Clearly, it was only them who could approach and "refer" to the Messenger for clarification. Another verse reads: "O you who believe! obey God and His Messenger and do not turn back from him while you hear." [008.020]. Here the expression "do not turn back from him while you hear", undoubtedly addresses those who could hear him because of their proximity to the Prophet.

A vast number of the Islamic doctrines are strangely absent in the Koran. They are, however, profusely enshrined in the Hadith and their prominence is supported in Islamic laws with parallel holiness with the Koran. Historian Will Durant tells us that the Christian Church took over some religious customs and forms prevailing among the pagans in pre-Christian Rome. The vestments of pagan priests, use of incense and holy water in purification, burning of candles, light before the altar and more importantly the law of Rome as a basis for Christian Canon Law. The Jews once found the Mosaic laws, despite its wealth of details, insufficient itself without the assistance of case laws and traditions. Eventually, the Talmud (oral law) arose to supply this need.

Similarly, the crawling of Sunnah into Islamic laws spans over several centuries. In short, it started after the death of Harun ar-Rashid, the Caliph of Baghdad in 809 AD. About seven years before his death he had made a Will and his eldest son al-Amin, was given the caliphate comprising of the Arab lands while al-Ma'mun got the Persian territories and not the Caliphate. As al-Ma'mun could not compromise with his father's Will he, with the help of Iranian army from Khorasan, marched into Baghdad and had his brother killed. This brutal murder caused severe antagonism between the Arabs and the Iranians.

Consequently, al-Ma'mun had to shift his strategy that severely downgraded the Arabs in his army. After realizing that it would not be safe either to depend solely on the army from Khorasan, al- Ma'mun decided to have mercenaries from Turkey. The Turks were then easily approachable and sufficiently numerous. The rapid growth of Turkish influence in the administration, court, and army eventually made the Caliph merely a puppet in the hands of the Turkish generals. He remained banished in Samara - far away from Baghdad. With his absence from the power-point, Islamic laws started brewing in the cauldron of the Turks - basically, Nestorian Christians having extended ties with Rome. The Popes in Rome always viewed Islam as a threat to their Hellenic Christianity and papal power.

The Turkish judges and high-ranking officers had very little knowledge about the new religion of Islam. Now the religious hypocrisy, borrowed from Rome, was more powerful in quelling down any decedent than the power of army. Any innocent people could have been charged and punished with treason or heresy just the way it was carried out in the Christendom. The entry of Turkish soldiers in the Abbasid service began a process that gave a distinctive shape to the administrative, political and cultural life of the world of Islam. Concurrently, this atmosphere generated a class of professionals and was called the "Ulema" towards the dying days of the Abbasid dynasty.

During the period from 933 to 937, a number of small but influential mercenary leaders erupted around Caspian and Persian-sea. They were knows as the Buyids, Ghaznavids and Seljuqs. The Buyids had taken over the power in Iraq at the invitation of the Caliph. Systematically, they had formulated their theological and juridical ideas in the name of Islam. And more than ever the 'Ulemas' functioned as the brokers to authenticate the Caliphs' rule being in agreement with the Prophet's precedents - the Sunnahs including the way the Prophet rode his camels, cleaned his teeth and kept his beard.

Muhammad Shahrur, a Syrian civil engineer, authored a book in 1992, entitled al-Kitab wa-l-Qur'an (The Book and the Quran). A review indicates that millions of copies of this book have been sold throughout the Arab world despite the fact that its circulation has been banned in many Islamic countries. Its success could not have been materialized unless there are a huge number of people who are in favor of its advocacy. The need for reinterpretation of Islamic laws, tradition and precepts to contemporary society has been thunderously echoed in this book and it covers such issues ranging from the role of women in the society to the acceptance of the virtues of the non-Muslim world

While we take comfort in the strength of Islam as the torchbearer during the 'Dark Ages', the inclusion of the misinterpreted Sunnah in the formation of Islamic epitome and the compilation of the Sharia Laws is merged with conspiracy and administrative connivance. Though demeaning, the ecclesiastical and temporal polity of the Islamic world was, unfortunately, built on these flimsy and corrupted sources that have been in existence for about a thousand years.

The reverences in which the Prophet was held by his contemporaries can be rationalized as their nostalgic passion that might have led them to preserve and repeat his sayings. This is normal and understandable. But to incorporate those sayings as Islamic edicts and to invoke them to prove that a certain act was performed by the Prophet, and therefore to be imitated by all believers, puts Islam in the same footings of personality cult that centered on Muhammad's sayings, doings, habits and choices. Though idol worshipping is a forbidden dictum in the Koran but it has stealthily mounted on all Islamic edicts behind the shield of a boasting Sunnah.

No doubt, millions of educated Muslims today are highly critical of the adherence to ancient and corrupted dogmas. In reality, the ill-conceived Sunnahs have poisoned Islam with such a severity that the cure, short of an Islamic Martin Luther, cannot be achieved.

[Sources: Classical Islam, Von Grunebaum; Traditions of Islam, Alfred Guillaume; The Muslim Creed, A.J. Wensinck; Muslim Theology, Duncan B. Macdonald; A History of the Arab Peoples, Albert Hourani; The Outline of History, H.G. Wells; Mankind's Search for God, various.]

Mesbah Uddin A researcher and a freelance writer has contributed this article from the United Kingdom.