This article will explain in short some of the evidences in the Quran that show we must follow the Sunnah as an additional source of guidance after the Book of Allah. After that, the article will also discuss some of the objections that can be raised against it.
Definition of Sunnah
Before figuring out whether the Sunnah is necessary, we need to understand what the Sunnah is and how we learn it. The Sunnah refers to the sayings, actions, and more of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW).
Note that there is a separate definition of Sunnah in some contexts that we are not referring to: Sunnah is sometimes used to refer to things that are not obligatory but were the practice of the Prophet (SAW). It would refer to things like prayers that are other than the 5 obligatory prayers. We do not mean to discuss this meaning of Sunnah.
The definition of Sunnah we are dealing with encompasses obligatory and optional things.
Definition of “In Addition to the Quran”
Some parts of the Sunnah may already be stated in the Quran, and in that case, there is no issue. Everyone would agree to follow those things.
What it means to hold the Sunnah “in addition to the Quran” is that the Sunnah is an independent source of law that does not need the Quran to confirm it before it is binding.
Meaning: Even if something is not specifically stated in the Quran, if the Sunnah affirms it, we are bound to follow it.
Sources of the Sunnah
There a few different sources for the Sunnah, but the most interesting and important one is the ahadith. Ahadith are narrations made of a chain of narrators and the text narrating the words or actions of the Prophet. This article does not consider the science of ahadith and whether it is trustworthy.
Rather, this article will explain why we need the Sunnah, then the reader can figure out how to learn the Sunnah in another article or on other sources which explain the reliability of ahadith.
Evidences of the Sunnah Being Obligated Additional to the Quran
This is the meat of the article where the major evidences for the Sunnah being binding law will be explored. Since the Quran is agreed upon, the evidences from the Quran shall be considered.
1. ⟪أَطِيعُوا اللَّهَ وَأَطِيعُوا الرَّسُولَ⟫: “Obey Allah and Obey the Messenger”
This phrase is mentioned in a number of different verses: 4:59, 5:92, 24:54. 47:33, 64:12.
O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and do not invalidate your deeds. (47:33)
This phrase is proof in two ways:
- Allah repeats the word “obey” before the messenger. If someone claims obeying the messenger is the same as obeying Allah, this does not make sense. The verse clearly separates between the two.
- Allah mentions “obey the messenger” in the same line with the same emphasis as “obey Allah.” This does not make sense for those who claim obeying the messenger only refers to obeying him in his lifetime. Why would Allah group “obeying the messenger” along with “obey Allah” then? The verse clearly points to obeying the messenger being a religious duty like obeying Allah, not a political duty limited to a certain time and place.
Summary of Proof: “Obey Allah” refers to obeying the speech of Allah in the Quran, and “obey the Messenger” refers to obeying the Sunnah of the Messenger (SAW).
2. ⟪قُلْ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ تُحِبُّونَ اللَّهَ فَاتَّبِعُونِي⟫: “Say, [O Muhammad]: If you should love Allah, then follow me”
Say, [O Muhammad], “If you should love Allah, then follow me, [so] Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. And Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.”
Say, “Obey Allah and the Messenger.” But if they turn away – then indeed, Allah does not like the disbelievers. (3:31-32)
This verse is proof in four ways:
- The Prophet is told to say “follow me” and not only “follow the Quran sent to me.”
- The verse says those who love Allah (i.e. those who have faith) must follow the Messenger.
- Allah conditions reward (“Allah will love you”) on following the Messenger.
- There is a distinction made between Allah and the Messenger. The verse emphasizes the importance of the Messenger by saying “If you love Allah, follow the messenger” rather than “If you love Allah, then follow Allah” which would be expected in the paradigm of only following Quran.
Summary of Proof: If a person has faith, he must obey the Messenger and follow his Sunnah, and only by following the Sunnah will the person gain Allah’s reward and pleasure.
3. ⟪فَإِنْ تَنَازَعْتُمْ فِي شَيْءٍ فَرُدُّوهُ إِلَى اللَّهِ وَالرَّسُولِ⟫: “And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger”
O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and the leaders among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result. (4:59)
This verse is evidence in two ways:
- Allah ends at obeying Allah and the Messenger without saying we should refer to Allah alone, and does not go further to mention what should happen if the Messenger disagrees. This is proof that the Messenger does not ever disagree with Allah. If someone always agrees with Allah, why wouldn’t you take that person as a source of law? That is by definition the best source of finding out what Allah wants.
- This verse mentions the groups we should look to for commands and mentions a hierarchy of who should be obeyed. This is, thus, the most important place to differentiate between Allah and the messenger if Allah wished to teach us that the words of Allah are exclusive revelation. The verse starts by commanding obedience to Allah, the messenger, and the leaders. Then, it states a hierarchy: if you disagree, then refer to Allah and the messenger directly unrelated to the leaders. If obedience to the Prophet (SAW) is only meant non-religiously, then this hierarchy makes no sense. Why refer to the messenger if Allah is the only source of law in reality? Why did Allah not make a distinction here between Allah and the Messenger in this most important verse which is supposed to be teaching the hierarchy? This shows the necessity of obeying the messenger along with Allah.
Question: Can the verse not mean by “obey Allah and the messenger” the Quran? So, it could be that it starts out with two things you need to obey: Quran and the leaders, then when you disagree, just go to the Quran.
Answer: The wording of the verse clearly refutes this understanding. Allah in this verse separates between the Messenger and Allah by saying “Obey Allah and obey the Messenger and the leaders.” This repetition of the verb for the Messenger is unexplainable to a person that rejects the Sunnah.
It is made even more confusing to the one who rejects the Sunnah by the fact that the verb is not repeated for the leaders. The reason for this is to emphasize that obedience to the Messenger is not the same as obedience to Allah. No similar emphasis is needed for the leaders since no one thinks obedience to them is the same as to Allah or the Messenger anyway. In fact, the next part of the verse clarifies that they are not as important as Allah and the Messenger.
Summary of Proof: Obey Allah, obey the messenger, and obey those in authority. If you disagree, refer to Allah i.e. the Quran, and refer to the Messenger i.e. the Sunnah.
4. ⟪لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ حَتَّى يُحَكِّمُوكَ فِيمَا شَجَرَ بَيْنَهُمْ⟫: “They will not [truly] believe until they make you, [O Muhammad], judge concerning that over which they dispute among themselves.”
But no, by your Lord, they will not [truly] believe until they make you, [O Muhammad], judge concerning that over which they dispute among themselves and then find within themselves no discomfort from what you have judged and submit in [full, willing] submission. (4:65)
The verse is proof in two ways:
- Like in the previous verse, Allah commands people to refer to the Prophet if they dispute about something. This verse is even clearer. The verse only mentions the Messenger being taken as the judge rather than Allah and the Messenger being mentioned together. This shows both the necessity of following the messenger and that following the messenger is not the same as following the Quran.
- Allah connects people’s belief/faith (Iman) itself to taking the Messenger as a judge. How can this be done for a non-religious duty? How can someone’s faith be at stake for something that is not revelation in and of itself? This shows that the Prophet’s judgements are themselves revelation that must be believed in; if someone doesn’t, that would make him a disbeliever.
Question: What if someone says this verse only means within the lifetime of the Prophet?
Answer: No part of the verse limits it to his lifetime.
Question: How can we make him a judge except in his lifetime??
Answer: If you claim we cannot make him a judge except in his lifetime, the verse in its straightforward words says you cannot believe at all. The verse says: “they will not [truly] believe until they make you, [O Muhammad], judge.” We say a person can make the Prophet the judge in modern times as well because of the Sunnah.
Question: Doesn’t the Prophet only judge based on the Quran?
Answer: Even if we claimed that, it does not solve the problem. Allah linked faith itself to accepting the judgement of the Prophet. Obviously, even if the Quran gives some rules, the judgement is still a human endeavor for normal people. Imagine if someone said: “You are not a believer unless you obey Scholar ABC because he judges properly according to the Quran.” Do you not see the obvious problem? Unless someone’s judgement and decisions are themselves divine (not just the source they base their judgement on), it is not possible to link faith to their judgement.
Summary of Proof: It is not possible to believe until you accept the commands of the Prophet (SAW) and find no discomfort after he gives his instructions. When we have a dispute, the Prophet (SAW) should be the judge through his Sunnah.
5. ⟪مَنْ يُطِعِ الرَّسُولَ فَقَدْ أَطَاعَ اللَّهَ⟫: “He who obeys the Messenger has obeyed Allah”
He who obeys the Messenger has obeyed Allah; but those who turn away – We have not sent you over them as a guardian. (4:80)
This is proof in two ways:
- Some people claim whenever the Quran says obey the messenger, it only means obey the Quran that the messenger brought. This verse defines it exactly the opposite. It is not obeying the Quran that is considered obeying the messenger, but rather obeying the messenger is itself obeying Allah. If the meaning of “obey the messenger” here were “obey Quran.” the verse would be incoherent. It’s like saying: “He who obeys my speech obeys me.” It is redundant and obvious. So, this verse is another evidence that obeying the messenger is not the same as obeying the Quran.
- Allah conditions obedience to Allah on obedience to the Messenger. So, no one can obey Allah without the messenger, while the purpose of many people is to “let the Quran speak for itself” without referring to the messenger.
Summary of Proof: It is obligated to obey the Prophet in the Sunnah just like it is obligated to obey the Quran, and obeying the Prophet is obeying Allah because what the Prophet does is revelation from Allah.
6. ⟪وَيُعَلِّمُكُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ⟫: “And he teaches them the Book and wisdom”
This phrase is mentioned in many places of the Quran in slightly different wordings like 2:129, 2:151, 3:164, 4:113, 33:34, and 62:2.
It is He who has sent among the unlettered a Messenger from themselves reciting to them His verses and purifying them and teaching them the Book and wisdom – although they were before in clear error. (62:2)
This verse is proof because:
- Allah says the Prophet (SAW) teaches us “the Book” and also “wisdom.” The two being mentioned one after the another indicates they are two different things. If the book and wisdom referred to the same thing (the Quran), the sentence would not make much sense.
Summary of Proof: The Messenger (SAW) teaches us the Book (the Quran) and he also teaches us wisdom (other revelation given to him that is not particularly Quran).
7. ⟪وَمَا يَنْطِقُ عَنِ الْهَوَى⟫: “And he does not speak from his own inclination”
Your companion [Muhammad] has not strayed, nor has he erred,
Nor does he speak from [his own] inclination.
It is not but a revelation revealed,
This verse is proof in two ways:
- It negates the Prophet (SAW) speaking through his own inclination. This refutes anyone who claims we don’t need to listen to the Prophet if he is not conveying the Quran. Rather, the verse says none of the speech of the Messenger is from his inclination.
- Allah calls his statements “nothing but revelation.” It is agreed upon by everyone that the Prophet had a tongue he used to talk and call people to Islam and he did not just speak in Quran. So, how can someone say about any teaching the Prophet gives that it is not a revelation?
Question: How can you say everything the Prophet (SAW) did was revealed by Allah when we know of verses where Allah criticizes the Prophet (SAW)?
Answer 1: Allah’s criticism of the Prophet is itself proof of it. Whenever the Prophet did anything against the preference of Allah, Allah revealed Quran directly to correct him. So, when there is no revelation to rebuke him, how can you refuse to follow him or think it is against Allah’s will?
Answer 2: Allah only criticizes the Prophet for doing something contrary to the best option, but not itself opposed to revelation.
Summary of Proof: The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) received revelation in multiple forms and the Quran is only one form. The Prophet did not command, legislate, or act except following the revelation given to him.
Thus, following the Sunnah is not meant as an opposite to following Allah. Rather, it is another method of following Allah after the Quran.
8. ⟪لَقَدْ كَانَ لَكُمْ فِي رَسُولِ اللَّهِ أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ⟫: “There has certainly been for you in the Messenger of Allah an excellent pattern”
There has certainly been for you in the Messenger of Allah an excellent pattern for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the Last Day and [who] remembers Allah often. (33:21)
This verse is proof because:
- Allah calls the Prophet (SAW) an “excellent pattern” meaning someone worthy to emulate and follow. This clearly indicates his actions are a source of guidance for us.
Question: Can this not refer to the Quran?
Answer: Clearly not, because this verse is not even about obedience to the spoken word. It is about actions themselves. We accept that actions themselves are a source of guidance, as Allah clearly says here. Do you?
Question: Allah calls Ibrahim (AS) and those who were with him an “excellent example” in 60:4, and if you claim that someone being an excellent example entails their actions are a source of guidance, why don’t you follow Ibrahim (AS)?
Answer 1: It is also necessary to follow Ibrahim (AS) whenever there reaches a person authentic information about his actions. The only real sources of information that exist about him are the Quran and the Sunnah. So, we follow whatever can be known about Ibrahim (AS).
Answer 2: Allah limits the mention of them being an excellent example in 60:4. He says: “There has been an excellent example in Abraham and those with him when they said […]” (60:4). So, that passage is clearly referring to one instance which Allah explains in the verse itself. This verse for Muhammad (SAW), however, is general and not limited by any words like “when.”
Summary of Proof: The Prophet is an excellent pattern according to Allah, and that is a person worthy of being emulated. This proves his actions are a source of evidence and guidance for us.
Some of the objections were mentioned already when the verses were mentioned, but the two most common objections are:
- Obey the messenger just means obey the Quran he brought!
- Obeying the messenger is only in his lifetime. Only Quran is necessary now!
Objection 1: Obey the Messenger is Just Obey Quran
Too many verses clearly distinguish between obedience to Allah and obedience to the messenger. The only proper way to understand this is that there is a difference in what “obey Allah” and “obey the Messenger” mean. In the paradigm of the Sunnah, the distinction is clear: obeying Allah is following the Quran and obeying the Messenger is following the Sunnah.
This is especially evident in the verse about obedience to “those in authority.” After giving three groups that people are meant to obey, Allah says that, if they disagree, they should go to Allah and the Messenger, rather than Allah alone.
Objection 2: Obey Messenger Only in His Lifetime
The claimants of this opinion cannot point to a single place in the Quran where Allah even implies obedience to the Prophet (SAW) is temporary. Rather, as we have mentioned in many of the verses, obeying him is linked to faith itself. So, this opinion is nothing but following desires and saying parts of the Quran expired without evidence.
That is without even going into the absurdity of this opinion. What does it mean to only obey the Prophet in his lifetime? Imagine you were with the Prophet (SAW) and he told you something himself, then he passed away. Are you no longer bound to what he told you the moment he passes away? This is obviously absurd.
If someone says: “You are bound by it because you heard it,” that person has already submitted that the Sunnah must be followed. His only contention is about whether we are sure some words are actually from the Prophet (SAW). That, we can deal with in another place.
Another Objection : How should we know the Sunnah is authentic?
See this article on the method of authenticating hadith.
It is evident in the Quran that Allah legislates obeying the Messenger (SAW) in addition to obeying the Quran itself. Some of the evidences were shown in this article. I finish by praising Allah and sending salawaat on the Prophet of Allah.