Custom and Tradition and their Respective Value in Muhammadan [Islamic] Law

by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian (The Promised Messiah)

The Review of Religions (English), May 1903 Issue (Vol. 2, No. 5, pp. 172–176)

Next to the Holy Quran, the Muhammadans [Muslims] have been given the Sunnat (custom) for their guidance in religion. Sunnat is the custom of the Holy Prophet [Muhammad (pbuh)] or the explanation and application of the injunctions of the Holy Quran in the practical life of the Holy Prophet. The Holy Quran enjoins the observance of prayer, for instance, but it does not explicitly fix the number of rakats [cycles] for each different prayer. But custom fully explains this and all other injunctions of the Holy Quran which need to be done practically for their due observance. To regard custom [sunnat] and tradition [sayings] as one thing is an error. Custom came into existence, along with every injunction that was revealed in the Holy Quran, and it was fully established by the Prophet himself in his own lifetime, whereas the sayings of the Prophet remained in the course of oral transmission for more than a century after the Holy Prophet and were then collected and arranged. The Holy Quran and the custom are simultaneous whereas tradition properly belongs to a later period. Almighty God and His Holy Prophet had charge of two things only. Almighty God made known His will to the world through His Word, while the Holy Prophet’s duty it was to explain the injunctions of the Quran in a practical way. This he did by turning the injunctions into practice and thus expound­ing the maxims of the law. It is an error to regard tradition as giving the necessary details. Before tradition was collected and recorded, Islam had been fully established upon the earth and its ordi­nances were the guiding rules of the lives of millions of human beings. Prayers were observed, alms given, and pilgrimages performed in accordance with the requirements of the law, and all distinctions between things allowed and prohibited had been clearly marked out long before the collection of tradition. All these things, therefore, depend upon the Holy Quran and custom and not upon tradition.

Tradition no doubt occupies the third place in Muslim Law and throws light upon many historical problems, adds to the ethical code of Islam, and assists in the application of the general principles of the Holy Quran to particular circumstances. It is like a servant in its relation to the Holy Quran and the custom. The Ahl-i-Hadith [Followers of the Tradition] confound custom with tradition and include both the sayings and the practice of the Holy Prophet under the name of tradition. But facts do not lend any support to this view. Custom was established under the direct care of the Holy Prophet, and this part of the law without which the injunctions of the Holy Quran would not have passed into the domain of the practical was in his own immediate charge; while tradition was not collected and classified to serve as a guide on doctrinal points until after the death of the Prophet and even his companions. Tradition, therefore, does not supersede or govern the Holy Quran and the custom but serves as an auxiliary to them. All important and essential principles and practices have been established by the Holy Quran and the custom, while tradition casts light upon secondary and minor points.

The value of each of these three sources of Muslim Law is, there­fore, varying. The Holy Quran is the pure and unaltered Word of God and its authority on all points is unquestionable. Custom is the practical course of life into which the Holy Prophet guided his com­panions and which has since been followed by all true Muslims. The authority of custom, though second to the Holy Quran, is far superior to that of tradition because it was established by the Prophet himself and handed down to us through a safe medium. But the same reliance cannot be accorded to tradition as to the Holy Quran and the custom. Its authority is only admissible when it does not con­tradict the Holy Quran and the custom. Tradition is subsidiary to the Holy Quran and the custom and possesses a vast treasure of religious doctrines and, therefore, its utter rejection is the cutting off of one of the three branches of Muslim Law. There is no doubt that we cannot place the same confidence in tradition as in the Holy Quran and the custom, and must dismiss as a pure fabrication every narrative which contradicts the Holy Quran and the custom, or traditions which agree with them, but still it is a very serious error to regard the whole mass of tradition as a pure fabrication. Every tradition must be honoured which is true when tested by the touchstone of the Holy Quran and the custom, for the ultimate source to which it may be traced is the Prophet himself. Do not deny it until the Holy Quran and the custom give it the lie, lest you should reject the word of the Holy Prophet. Nay, you should be so scrupulous about it that you should not do, or forbear from doing, an act unless you have a tradi­tion in support of it. If you find a tradition contradicting the words of the Holy Quran, try to put upon its words a construction which should reconcile it to the Holy Quran. But if such a reconciliation is not possible in any case, reject the tradition for it cannot be from the Prophet. If a tradition is borne out by the Holy Quran, its authori­ty is unquestionable though its authenticity may have been called into question by the collectors. In like manner if you come across a tradition involving a prophecy which has been fulfilled in your own time or previous to it, know it for certain that it is the word of the Prophet and condemn the opinion of those who have questioned its authenticity and truthfulness, for by bringing it to fulfilment Almighty God has Himself sealed its truth. If you reject such a tradition because some collectors or compilers of tradition have pronounced it to be unworthy of credit, you are guilty of rejecting an argument for the truth of Islam. In that case you are an enemy of Islam and not its friend. Almighty God says in the Holy Quran:

فَلَا یُظۡہِرُ عَلٰی غَیۡبِہٖۤ اَحَدًا
 اِلَّا مَنِ ارۡتَضٰی مِنۡ رَّسُوۡلٍ

“God does not reveal His deep secrets except to such of His chosen apostles as He is pleased with” [The Holy Quran, 72:26­–27].

Hence a true prophecy cannot be attributed to any but a true prophet of God. If a compiler has pronounced a tradition to be unauthentic or fabricated, which has afterwards been shown to be true by the fulfilment of the prophecy which it reveals, it is easy to see that the error must be attributed to the judgment of the compiler. What a folly to assert that Almighty God committed a mistake in showing the truth of that which was really false!

Along with this respect for traditions it is necessary to warn the reader against their abuse. The gigantic mass of tradition contains an immense amount of fictitious material. Tradition opened up for every section dissenting from the true faith a vast field for fabrication to support its own views. Each sect thus came to have its own traditions, and their variance at last affected even the unity of custom in certain cases. Custom, for instance, did not teach more than a single way of saying prayers, yet tradition even in this case split the Muslims into many sects. An erroneous view of the authority of traditions has led astray many sections of Islam. In this lies the error of the Shias too. The same error led astray the Jews who placed too great a confidence in their traditions to the utter neglect of the Word of God. They trusted in the traditions which plainly said that Elijah would descend from heaven before the coming of Jesus Christ and rejected the interpretation which Jesus put on the Word of God that by the coming of Elijah was meant the coming of one in his power and spirit, because their traditions told them a bodily and not a spiritual descent of Elijah. Among the collections of Muslim tradition, the Bukhari [Sahih Bukhari] is a sacred and trustworthy book. It is the book which, like the Quran, plainly speaks of the death of Jesus Christ. In like manner, the work of Muslim [Sahih Muslim] and other collec­tions of traditions are depositaries of important religious truths, and the traditions narrated in them must be acted upon by all true Muslims subject to the condition that they do not contradict the Holy Quran and the custom.