Definition of Ruling
A ruling is to attribute a predicate to a subject. An example is to say a car is red. Another example is to say drinking alcohol is haram. In both of these cases, you attribute one thing (being red or being haram) to another thing (the car or drinking alcohol).
Rulings are both about reality and about divine law. The latter is simply a subset of the former since the divine law refers to what God commanded, and that is a part of reality. When you try to figure out the color of the car or the status of drinking alcohol, you are trying to figure out the reality of something: in the first case, the observed color, and in the second case, whether God has declared drinking alcohol punishable.
Definition of Evidence
An evidence is something that leads you to believe a certain ruling. Fundamentally, evidence comes from reasoning and your sensory observation (sight, hearing, etc.). Robust reasoning and clear observation is generally considered fundamental and accepted without doubt. That does not preclude the possibility of someone imagining something to be robust reasoning or clear observation when it actually has a flaw in it.
Regardless, it must be understood that all evidence eventually rests on the fundamentals: reasoning or observation. Beyond the fundamentals is where evidence becomes interesting to analyze. In this article, I will focus on textual evidence but it can be applied to other types of evidence as well.
Definition of Evidentiary Power
Evidentiary power refers to how strongly a given proof forces one to accept its ruling. Is there doubt in it? If there is, how much doubt is there in it?
It may be divided into definitive and non-definitive.
Definitive and Non-definitive
If there is no doubt in an evidence, it is definitive. If there is conceivable doubt in it, it is non-definitive, and there are varying levels of non-definitive depending on how much doubt there is. There are also different levels of definitive.
It is important to understand that an evidence being non-definitive does not mean we should not act on it. Even non-definitive evidence can be extremely strong. For example, a person may not know definitively a bus will come at 8 AM today, however, he would go and wait for the bus anyway based on a non-definitive prediction from the bus schedule.
It is practical reality that most of what we do in our daily life even separate from religion is not based on indubitable evidence.
Non-definitive evidence is of varying levels of strength and weakness. Even weak non-definitive evidence is commonly used in our normal lives, and it is used in matters of Islamic law in the absence of opposing stronger evidence.
Textual evidence has three qualities that determine its power: authority, authenticity, and clarity.
Each of these qualities with respect to a specific textual evidence is either definitive or non-definitive. Then, the evidence as a whole is either definitive or non-definitive based on those three qualities. If all three are definitive, then the evidence is definitive. If some of them are non-definitive, the evidence is non-definitive.
There are more qualities one could analyze about an evidence, but these three are what are important in religious matters, so this article will concern itself with them.
Quality 1: Authority
Authority refers to whether the text is attributed to or comes from someone who holds authority in issuing the ruling in question.
To understand the importance of this quality, imagine someone says to you, “Eating apples is haram.”
You ask him, “Why?”
He responds, “I said so.”
Does this exchange establish the ruling of apples being haram? It is obvious to everyone it doesn’t because no random person is an authority able to declare things haram. Even if someone does issue a ruling, he ultimately needs to refer it back to the authorities that do hold such ability, like Allah Himself. It would be valid for someone to claim apples are haram because the Quran said so (if it did say so).
In matters of Islamic law, Allah is the ultimate authority since He created the law.
The countless commands in the Quran to obey the Prophet (SAW) mean that he holds complete authority in the matters of Islamic law, but his authority derives from and depends on Allah’s appointment of him as a prophet.
There is debate among the Muslim scholars whether the Sahabah are authorities in Islam, but even this most likely returns to the authority of the Prophet. Those who consider them authorities consider them so because they say the Sahabah’s actions and sayings most likely indicate those of the Prophet (SAW). Another source that has non-definitive authority is the practice of the people of Madinah (used in the Maliki mazhab)
There is no debate that no one after the Sahabah is an authority in Islam by himself.
However, the consensus of the Islamic community is considered authoritative due to Allah’s deeming anyone who opposes the believers as a whole to be sinful (see 4:115 and other evidences for consensus being a source of law).
The reason Allah is authoritative in matters of Islamic law is because He created those laws. As for the others, they derive their authority somehow from this original authority.
So, the authority of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), and the Muslim consensus is definitive. Other sources of evidence like the Sahabah and the people of Madinah are non-definitive in whether they are authoritative.
Quality 2: Authenticity
Authenticity refers to how the text or quotation from the person reached you.
If Allah spoke to you directly and said something or the Prophet said something in front of you, there would be no reason to doubt authenticity since there is no one in between at all.
But, both the speech of Allah and the Prophet (SAW) reach us through other people. The authenticity of this is divided into mutawatir (mass-transmitted) and ahaad (not mass-transmitted).
Anything mutawatir is definitive in authenticity, because mass-transmission prevents the possibility of lies and mistakes in what was transmitted.
Anything ahaad could become definitive due to reasons like consensus but is not inherently definitive. Meaning, there are mistakes conceivable in ahaad narrations. Ahaad is further divided in Hadith Sciences into: Sahih, Hasan, and Daeef. Sahih and Hasan are levels of authenticity usually considered enough to use in Islamic law. However, they are levels of authenticity within the non-definitive.
Quality 3: Clarity
We have analyzed above the speaker of the text (authority) and the delivery of the text (authenticity). What is left to analyze is the text itself.
Clarity refers to how clearly a given text supports the ruling it is claimed to support. Are there other interpretations possible? Does the text allow exceptions? Is the text vague?
This is probably the most important aspect of evidence to understand. Not every proof is created equal. Some proofs support their ruling very strongly and some support it very weakly. The following are some examples of different levels of clarity in texts.
I will only give examples of evidence used for rulings I agree with, as giving examples of weak evidence for rulings you disagree with is easy.
Regarding the prohibition of pork, Allah says in the Quran:
He has only forbidden to you dead animals, blood, the flesh of swine, and that which has been dedicated to other than Allah. (2:173)
This verse is extremely clear in forbidding the flesh of pigs. So, the clarity level is definitive.
Regarding the shortening of prayer in travel, Allah says in the Quran:
And when you travel throughout the land, there is no blame upon you for reducing from the prayer, if you fear that those who disbelieve may disrupt [or attack] you. Indeed, the disbelievers are ever to you a clear enemy. (4:101)
This verse is not very clear evidence in allowing a traveler to shorten his prayers, because it has clauses that may lead one to hold different interpretations for what it means and has vague wording. A person could reasonably conclude that shortening prayer is only allowed when there is fear of attack, or he could reasonably conclude the verse doesn’t even talk about the shortening of rakahs in the first place.
So, we would call this non-definitive evidence that is strong if not moderate or weak.
(This is not the place to elaborate on the evidence for shortening prayer and where it comes from. I am only analyzing one verse used as evidence.)
Regarding the fact that the earth is spherical, Allah says:
He wraps the night over the day and wraps the day over the night. (39:5)
Many scholars have used this verse as evidence that the earth is round because you can only “wrap” things around a round thing. So, this verse proves that the night and day are moving around a round object.
However, this evidence is moderate in strength as a reader can see clearly. It does not definitively establish the roundness of the earth. That is because conceivable other interpretations can exist even if they seem farfetched like saying the earth is flat but the sky around it is round, hence the night and day are wrapped around the round sky.
The two most common things that cause an evidence to be non-definitive are:
- Vagueness of wording or phrasing such that it allows several interpretations even if one is more likely than the others.
- Generality of the statement such that it does not preclude the possibility of specific exceptions to it.
Comparing the Quran and Hadith
Now that we have explained in detail how we analyze the strength of textual evidences, let us try to answer the question in the title as a demonstration of these principles.
The question is: Is the Quran more important than Hadith?
To change it to the terminology of this article: Is the Quran more powerful as evidence than the Hadith?
The power of a textual evidence is based on the three qualities. So, let us analyze each of them in the Quran and Hadith.
Authority of the Quran and Hadith
The authority of the Quran comes from the fact that it is the speech of Allah. The authority of the Prophet (SAW) comes from the fact that he is the messenger sent by Allah to deliver Islam, and he cannot lie about it.
So, it is obvious that the authority of the Prophet (SAW) depends on the authority of Allah, but is it truly less than it?
To answer this question, you just need to ask yourself a simple thing: Is it possible for the Prophet to command something against Allah’s permission?
The reality is that any Muslim would realize that the Prophet cannot do that. There are plenty of proofs for this in the Quran itself like Allah saying:
And if Muhammad had made up about Us some [false] sayings, We would have seized him by the right hand; Then We would have cut from him the aorta. And there is no one of you who could prevent [Us] from him. (69:44-47)
So, if the Prophet (SAW) was in front of you and he commanded you to do something as part of the religion, you would do it without doubt and without question as quickly as you do it if you hear about the Quran saying it.
There are some people who would refuse and say “If the Prophet says something without quoting Quran to prove it, I have no responsibility to obey him.” Such a person would be a disbeliever that has nothing to do with Islam.
However, many people might feel uneasy to say the authority of Hadith is the same in power as the authority of the Quran even after the above examples have shown that clearly. The reason for this unease is conflation between authenticity and authority.
The authenticity of Hadith is more in question than the Quran, but that should not stop us from realizing the authority of Hadith is equivalent to the authority of the Quran in power even if one is more dependent than the other.
The authority of the Prophet depends on the authority of Allah, but they are both definitive, and all Muslims agree they could never truly contradict each other.
Authenticity of the Quran and Hadith
The Quran is definitive in authenticity due to mass-transmission, while only some hadith are definitive in authenticity.
Most ahadith are non-definitive in authenticity, but they may be very strong if they are Sahih.
This is what most people appeal to when they claim the Quran is stronger than Hadith. There is no doubt that the Quran is truly much stronger than Hadith in this aspect.
However, it is important not to forget the other aspects of a textual evidence. Most people’s fallacy comes in conflating the power of authenticity to overall power of an evidence.
Clarity of the Quran and Hadith
This is obviously something that depends on the exact case. One evidence from the Quran can be extremely clear, and one can be vague and allow different interpretations.
Likewise, an evidence from the Hadith can be very clear, and another could be unclear.
When comparing two evidences, it is possible for the Quranic evidence to be more clear than the one from Hadith, and it is possible for the Hadith to be more clear than the Quranic evidence.
There is no inherent superiority of the Quranic evidence in this aspect.
To give an example, Allah says in the Quran:
Indeed, your Lord knows, [O Muhammad], that you stand [in prayer] almost two thirds of the night or half of it or a third of it, and [so do] a group of those with you. And Allah determines [the extent of] the night and the day. He has known that you [Muslims] will not be able to do it and has turned to you in forgiveness, so recite what is easy [for you] of the Quran. He has known that there will be among you those who are ill and others traveling throughout the land seeking [something] of the bounty of Allah and others fighting for the cause of Allah. So recite what is easy from it and establish prayer and give zakah and loan Allah a goodly loan. […] (73:20)
Some of the Hanafis used this phrase from the Quran “recite what is easy [for you] of the Quran” to say the only obligatory part of Quran in Salah is “what is easy.” Thus, they say: Reciting any amount of Quran even without reciting Fatihah makes the prayer valid.
However, the Prophet (SAW) said:
There is no prayer for the one who did not recite the Opening of the Book (Fatihat al-Kitab i.e. Surah Fatihah).
This statement is strongly non-definitively clear if not entirely definitively clear.
There is little to no doubt that this statement obligates reciting Fatihah in prayer.
So, this is an example of Quranic evidence that is non-definitive (and perhaps weak) in clarity while a Hadith is very strong and almost definitive in clarity. The Hanafis may have a different analysis of the situation, but this was just an example to demonstrate the point.
As the above analysis of the different qualities of textual evidence has shown, the only one where the Quranic evidence holds advantage is authenticity.
As for authority, they are both definitive in authority, so there is no need to compare between them in this aspect.
As for clarity, that is where a large amount of the comparison must come.
So, to compare a Quranic evidence and an evidence from Hadith, you need to compare the powers of authenticity and clarity together.
It is not necessary that you need to reject every Hadith evidence that goes against Quranic evidence only on the basis of authenticity. It is possible the Quranic evidence is unclear and allows different interpretations even if with difficulty, while the Hadith evidence is very clear. So, even if the Quranic evidence is stronger in one quality, it may be overturned due to the overall power of the two evidences.
When Two Textual Evidences Contradict
In the situation that two textual evidences contradict, the stronger evidence must be chosen. Contradiction in this context does not refer to true contradiction, but apparent contradiction between the rulings each evidence seem to support.
When two evidences contradict, one must be wrong.
Wrong has a specific meaning here. A textual evidence could be wrong due to a weakness in either of its three qualities.
If it is wrong due to a weakness in authority, that is called a mistake by the person. This would not apply to Allah and the Prophet, but could apply to the Sahabah. If it is wrong due to authenticity, that is called a misattribution. Meaning, the text does not truly come from the one it attributes itself to. If it is wrong due to clarity, that is called a misinterpretation. Meaning, the current interpretation of the text being used to support the ruling needs to be changed.
So, when we say one of the evidences is wrong, we are definitely not saying Allah or the Prophet are wrong. Allah and the Prophet do not make mistakes, but a text could be misattributed to them or could be misinterpreted.
The Quran is definitive in the first two qualities, so it being used as evidence can only be wrong in terms of misinterpretation. The Sunnah is only definitive in the first quality, so it could be either wrong due to misattribution or misinterpretation. Most of the time, we combine the three qualities before making a judgement, so we would not be able to say definitively which way it is wrong.
If either evidence is definitive overall, that evidence is preferred over the non-definitive one. It is not possible for two definitive evidences to contradict.
If both are non-definitive overall (and this is the most common case), the evidence that is strongest overall is preferred. Strength overall is like multiplying the probabilities of all the three qualities if we represented them as probabilities.