Reviving the Balance

The Authority of the Qur'an and the Status of the Sunnah

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Taha Jabir Alalwani
  • Herndon, VA: 
    International Institute of Islamic Thought
    , January
     2017.
     224 pages.
     $14.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781565646902.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Taha Jabir Alalwani’s Reviving the Balanceis an insider Muslim critique of Islamic history and various views of the relationship between the Qur’an and the Sunnah. His declared purpose is “to clarify the relationship between the Sunnah . . . and the Qur’an” (xi). Alalwani’s contention and essential argument is that once the Sunnah was collected, the Muslim community began to focus upon it much more strongly than the Qur’an in their discourse and juridical rulings. This led to and continues to impact the community (in the author’s estimation) through its neglect of the Qur’an. Alalwani argues that a reevaluation is needed, particularly with regard to the concept of Sunnah, to re-situate the Qur’an as the primary legal resource for the Muslim community. He does not advocate for an abandonment of the Sunnah, but rather a re-entrenching of its place as subordinate to and inseparable from the Qur’an. 

Alalwani marshals examples from the classical and post-classical exegetical and juridical traditions, as well as his own experience and anecdotal evidence, showing, as he contends, that “once the Sunnah had been collected, the Muslim community did, in fact, neglect the Qur’an in favor of narrations of what the Prophet had done and said on the pretext that such narratives ‘contained’ the Qur’an. They then abandoned the Sunnah narratives in favor of Islamic jurisprudence on the pretext that Islamic juristic texts tacitly included both the Qur’an and the Sunnah” (xii). His proposed solution to this is the advancement of what he calls the “theory of elucidation” (71), a discursive adjustment that ensures that the Sunnah is measured against the content of the Qur’an as a distinct means of keeping Muslims and their interpretations within the confines of firmly delineated and authoritative source materials. “The actions and sayings which Muslims are called upon to emulate and which are viewed as divine revelation themselves have their roots in the Qur’an. If something lacks a Qur’anic foundation, it may still be drawn on as a source of wisdom and practical benefit. However, it will not have the character of divinely revealed legislation” (70). 

Alalwani proceeds through a logical analysis of foundational concepts, beginning with prophethood and the roles of prophets, through the definitions and uses of sunnah(as a term and concept), the position of the Qur’an, and a variety of other aspects of import when considering the Sunnah. Among the most important historical shifts he sees is an expansion of the definition of Sunnah at the hands of the ʿulamā’ and mystics who “changed the meaning of the term Sunnah such that, rather than referring simply to application of and obedience to the Qur’an in people’s daily lives, it now came to refer to virtually everything the Prophet was reported to have done or said. To this expanded definition of the term Sunnah was then added a further element, as the Sunnah was said also to include everything the Prophet knew others to have done or said without condemning or disapproving of it” (113). This, according to Alalwani, resulted in an over-emphasis on the Sunnah  (and hadith reports in particular) as the source for Islamic jurisprudence: “So pivotal had the hadiths become that it was now possible to rely on them to the exclusion of all else, and impossible to dispense with them in favor of anything else. In consequence, the Qur’an’s role in Muslims’ lives was greatly diminished . . . The hadiths thus became the actual material out of which the Muslim mentality was shaped” (143). 

These problems then were compounded, Alalwani says, by the historical focus only on isnād (the chain of transmitters of a hadith report) criticism as a means of authentication of the narratives and detection of fabrications. In the face of these issues, Alalwani calls for and proposes an involved reanalysis of the Sunnah materials, engaging not only in traditional isnād criticism, but doing so in conjunction with a his new methodology formatn(or content of the hadith report) criticism: “In sum, only a combined critique of a hadith’s text (matn) and its chain of transmission (isnād) will afford us a reasonable level of certainty in our assessment of the hadith’s validity and reliability” (199). This methodology contains many differing points for judging which of the Sunnah materials are to be accepted as authentic and authoritative. From an academic and religious studies perspective, Alalwani’s list is fascinating as it represents a variety of factors, some of which would simply reify existing Islamic notions and dogmas, while others would be extremely difficult to implement and potentially cause more problems than they would solve.

It is clear that much of Alalwani’s thinking is prompted by a desire to respond to both Western academic criticisms of the traditional Islamic exegetical tradition as well as certain movements in the Islamic community (namely, those that advocate abandonment of the Sunnah, and a reliance on the Qur’an alone). However, much of the thinking that comes through in this volume is problematic from an academic or critical perspective. Much of the argumentation relies upon eisegetical readings, dogmatic assertion, or tautological reasoning. This is most likely influenced by the fact (acknowledged in the foreword) that this an abridged translation, with many of the references and further evidences omitted, making the work seem less evidentiary and more declarative than it originally was. Likewise, while prompted in part by Western scholarship, Alalwani does not engage with this material in detail, which is ultimately ironic as his proposed method for matn criticism has much in common with the methods and suggestions from Western academics (such as Ignaz Goldziher, David Powers, and Harald Motzki) who have also advocated for reevaluation and reanalysis of the Hadith materials.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew C. Smith is Adjunct Instructor of Religious Education, Brigham Young University.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Taha Jabir Alalwani (1935– 2016) was a graduate of Al-Azhar University and an internationally renowned scholar and expert in the fields of Islamic legal theory, jurisprudence (fiqh), and usul al-fiqh. He authored numerous works and was a member of the OIC Islamic Fiqh Academy, and President of Cordoba University in Ashburn, Virginia, United States.

Keywords: 

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