Interpretative Treason In The First Degree: The Juristic Fallacy Of Approaching The Study And Application Of Prophetic Biography (Seerah) Without Reference To Usul al-Fiqh And Hadith Sciences


Imam ibn al-Qayyim’s Method in Using the Sirah as a Source of Guidance

Understanding the means, by which, to derive life lessons and practical rulings from (Seerah) the Biography of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is no new or innovated endeavor. Hafidh Ibn al-Qayyim (ra) in Zaad al-Maad established a model for deriving fiqh from Seerah. In Zaad Hafidh Ibn al Qayyim engages in narration and textual criticism by referening to the Sciences of Usul al-Fiqh and the Sciences of Hadith to establish a justified understanding of Seerah.

According to the Scholars of Hadith (ra), Seerah is categorically part of Sunnah by definition and Sunnah as a general concept  encompasses Seerah as a body of knowledge which teaches us about the Prophet Muhammad’s (obuh) practice and life. Upon analysis of the varying definitions of Sunnah in Islamic tradition the most comprehensive definition to be found for the term Sunnah is that of the Scholars’ of Hadith (ra). In their definition of Sunnah, Seerah and the physical features of the Prophet (obuh) as well as his character constitute Sunnah in addition to his words, action and those matters which the Companions practiced which he consented to. In practice, the verifying Scholars of Hadith subject Seerah as a body of knowledge to the principles of “narration criticism.” The same principles used to critically verify Seerah collection are employed in classifying hadith literature but generally are liberally applied in the Science of history.

In Zaad, Hafidh Ibn al Qayyim (ra), takes a critical approach to Seerah studies an approach much more exacting than that foundthe classic masterpiece Imam Ibn Hisham (ra) ”Seerah Ibn Hisham” which is based on the prototype seerah work of Imam Ibn Ishaq (r).

In reading tradition it is wise to consider the two approaches that scholars have employed in constructing texts: compilation and critical Research. In “compiling” a text scholars may employ critical editing techniques and may not. The opposite is true in the act of producing a “critical edition” of a text. In this approach information is critically examined and the level of authenticity of content and comprehension is established.

If we look to Hafidh Ibn al Qayyim (ra) we find that in Zaad he establishes the authenticity of narrations that constitute Seerah literature and this is a preliminary research stage, prior to engaging the fiqh of Seerah literature. A lack in expertise in the  the Sciences of Hadith makes the possibility for comprehending what is authenticate an impossible task. What we learn from Imam Ibn al Qayyim (ra) is that as a matter of principle Seerah is subject to the procedure and methodological principles employed to authenticate hadith.

So, deriving rulings from Seerah without being sure of the authenticity of sources is a methodological error. Secondly, failure to draw upon the discipline of the Principles of Fiqh(Usul al-Fiqh) to establish an acceptable meaning of a text is an exercise of whim and baseless speculation. Interpretation without guidance of principled scholarship  is rejected by the Scholars of Islam. The reason for this is that in an attempt to contextualize practice today one may contradict the general principles of Shar’iah through interpretation or deem a matter acceptable that is unacceptable or the opposite. This approach to Seerah is one based on whim and willed ignorance of the scale of judgment employed by Shar’iah. Likewise, reading Seerah in this light may cause one to misinterpret the Qur’an given that Seerah is a source of Qur’anic tafsir an improper comprehension of Seerah can open up far fetched understandings of the Qur’an as well as misinterpret the aims of acts as they unfolded in the time of the Prophet (pbuh).

In an attempt to understand how to apply Islam and to uncover new lessons of relevancy for life today many are turning to Seerah given that the fiqh tradition for the unintiated can be looked upon as awkward. Lacking in aptitude and know-how Islamic thinkers  da’wah workers are focusing their energy on understanding Seerah as a source of revival. Unfortunately, any attempt to work out Islamic practice must be principled and Seerah is not excluded from this rubric. Without grounding in the Principles of fiqh and Hadith sciences deriving lessons and fiqh fromSeerah is a path to be confusion masked by the intention of revival.

Seerah like Hadith and Maqasid ash-Shar’iah is a body of knowledge which demands prerequisite studies in Islamic sciences. Anything short of approaching Seerah with the necessary tools is to venture on a path full of contradictions and may lead one to be in violation of the inner logic and specifics of Shar’iah. The claim to derive general principles from Seerah is a false claim when unguided by Islamic sciences. An example of how Seerah has been employed a source of revival but has yielded to a distorted understanding by the quasi-scholar is the attempt to hold the the current age in character and quality that that of the Meccan period.

In effect, this reading of Seerah is a corruption of practice for it ignores in total Islamic scholarship and dismisses the mechanisms of Shar’iah that facilitate the application of Islam in varying contexts and situations while keeping in mind general principles and specific evidences. This is done unfortunately in the name of being conscious and sensitive to context and situation, in the name of contextualizing Islam.

Contextual readings of Seerah that describe the current age as Meccan leads to practical legislative blunders by distorting the scales of action so that the methods for establishing HaramMakruhMubahMandub and Halal are subjugated and dismissed in the name of understanding social context in light of the Seerah. The end result is that the whole superstructure of Shar’iah and Islamic sciences are undermined in the name of applying Shar’iah. This is done by way of creative interpretations of Seerah which are socially relevant and taken to be the principles of Shar’iah applied.

Allahu Musta`an

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8 Comments

  1. Slave of Allah says:

    Good article. But I think the article is theoretically accurate but fails to examine that ” meccan theme ” and its applicability to the current situation of Muslims.

    Indeed such interpretation has grave consequences but the intellectual honesty calls upon the writer of this piece to piece together the political realities in our world now. Unfortunately, there are scholars who are deep-rooted in knowledge but fail to know the waki' or political reality or just turn a blind eye to it.

  2. Dawud Israel says:

    I particularly enjoy using Za'd al-Ma'ad since its very exact, not just on authenticity but in finding every possible report and categorizing it. For example: What surahs were recited in what prayers. And the commentary on this is beneficial because it provides some discussion on other practices it omits and explains their history (fabricated or not related or confused with this). This approach is awesome but I don't think it goes far enough and seems, incomplete ?

    Ibn Kathir's approach in combining Seerah with Hadith is in my opinion, the best. It is the broadest and references as much possible, however with the current English versions, the language used is very ambiguous at times. You do get a more complete, fuller and clearer picture of the Sunnah, and nothing from the life of the Prophet salallahu alayhi wasalam or his Sunnah is “censored,” whereas with the Zad you get a more nuanced, detailed view.

    With “Compilations,” (Hadith canons) you get a sense of randomness and disorder because not everything is connected (What was the compiler thinking in putting this hadith here?) or as well defined or explained as much as it is with “Critical Research,” like in Z'ad al Maad. I personally think their should be more of a feasible, easy to understand hybrid between the two, with reference to Hadith Commentary and Explanations, which is something I think isn't given as much attention. That's something that would make it easier for laymen like myself to understand and comprehend fully. Get the whole picture and make it as detailed and nuanced as humanly possible, so one can't say, “What about this hadith? You forgot about what this might mean,” which could lead to disputes. For this, I think we might need another Imam Bukhari !

    Jazaka Allahu khayran for the analysis. :)

  3. Abul-Hussein says:

    AS

    Abdullah, I hope your well. Your point is well taken it has its place as defined by the principles of usul. Waqi, (social reality) is not a source of legislation (shar'iah) as is posited by the esteemed Dr. Tariq Ramadan but rather its understanding is key to soundly implementing rulings and fataawa.

    The problem that has emerged in the contemporary thought of Islamic Movement and it is a real problem for it lacks scholarly grounding is to comprehend Seerah in light of “Hakimiyyah” a concept which is riddled with issues. So we have an understanding of the Sources of Islam which is removed from the guidance of Islamic sciences here.

    Fact is that we are not in the Meccan age that age is long gone, nor we are in the Madinan age. We are however living in the post Revelation age. And this age as others falls under the purvey and guidance of Shariah. Without sound principled scholarship it is not possible to understand the relationship between Shariah and life.We need a tarbiyah similar to that of the Meccan period but not a fiqh for for the Meccan period.

    Allahu Al'am
    Abul-Hussein (Yusuf Rios)

  4. omare says:

    Great article…Jazak Allah.

    Could anyone suggest a good book to read on methodology in Islamic Sciences (particularly Hadith)…?

  5. Sarandeebiyy says:

    A website of Jewish converts to Islam explains that Ibn Ishaq was considered a liar and imposter by Imam Malik for spreading stories that the Prophet SAW killed 900 Jews, and the stories are accepted uncritically as there has been no rigor in checking books on seerah as there is in hadith. I hope the shuyukh can correct and widely disseminate the facts about these stories.

    “On examination, details of the story can be challenged. It can be demonstrated that the assertion that 600 or 800 or 900 men of Banu Qurayza were put to death in cold blood can not be true; that it is a later invention; and that it has its source in Jewish traditions. Indeed the source of the details in earlier Jewish history can be pointed out with surprising accuracy.”

    http://jews-for-allah.org/2009/03/04/did-prophe

  6. tr says:

    You can get the recently published book Hadith: An Introduction by Jonathan Brown from Amazon. He has a lecture on halaltube.com. You can check that out to see if you like his approach or not. He has held instructions on Hadith for both American Learning Institute for Muslims (Alim) and AlMaghrib ILM summit. Here is a brief bio of Dr. Brown– http://www.patheos.com/About-Patheos/Jonathan-B… .

  7. Saad says:

    This is all very enlightening Mashallah, But, for me as a ‘lay-Muslim’, this really makes the Seerah appear as ‘far fetched’, ‘impracticable’ and perhaps even ‘irrelevant’ to some degree. May Allah forgive me for such claims.

    My point being that I appreciate the intellectual gymnastics this article presented, But the fact that it would entail Seerat un Nabi as impracticable and irrelevant to Muslims like me, makes me hold back my judgement, and hence I do not agree with you.

    I do not disagree either. I’m confused. Could you elaborate, please?

    Jazakallahu Khair

  8. Assalaamu alaykum

    I think that taking sunnah and seerah as sources of religion are unjustified. Neither one has been guaranteed by the revelation, i.e, the Qur’an.

    When you look at sura an-nisa, and see the command ot take the messenger’s decision as a source of law, ayat 55-65, or thereabouts, there is nothing that indicates that we should accept unrevealed reports for establishing what the messenger intended for us or ordered us.

    The utility of having the prophet on hand must have been wonderful for the companions, and I long for that closeness in my heart, but the reality is that we don’t have him with us in that way now. God bless the messenger.

    We have solid material, that is the Qur’an, and we have dubitable material, which is everything else. I hope that the selection criteria for hadith have been good, and that the good hadith are good and that people are acting with good action, but there is no guarantee there. Man-made sciences of hadith are not reliable and we should not canonise hadith on the basis of these scientific efforts.

    Humans make errors, so why introduce error into the religion? The sahih hadith are the 2% that were acceptable.

    Where I live its guava season. There are a lot of farms with worms in the guava. Would you eat 2 guava fruit that were claimed to be good, if they were selected from a batch in which 98 had worms and only these 2, it was claimed, were worm-free?

    I hope my contribution is useful. I do not want to harm my brothers in any way. I want the very best for all believers and I worry about our condition.

    Abdullah Reed

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