Understanding Tradition

WHEN MUSLIMS IN the West describe themselves as traditional, it might seem as if they are adding yet another label to a dizzying array of social and religious typologies that already exist in their communities. The concern with defining tradition is not a vain attempt to reframe the Enlightenment debate of reason versus revelation, or tradition versus modernity. Rather, tradition, albeit the Islamic Tradition, is the gladiator’s arena where the most bitter conflict for the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims is taking place.

The word tradition comes from the Latin traditio, meaning to hand down or to pass on knowledge or truths embodied in ritual practices, culture and beliefs from a past authority to subsequent generations within a religious community. The central purpose of a tradition is to act as a bridge between then and now, between a sacred moment in history and the profane present. Tradition is much more than just a word or a concept; it is a paradigm.

In the Islamic context, Tradition is the sunna of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings. It is the way of the Prophet when he walked on Earth. It is the summation of the entire religion of Islam. The sunna is fashioned from the words of the Prophet, his actions and acquiescence to the words and actions of others, and his personal attributes (sifaf). Without it there could be no Islam.

At a general level, the people of Sunna-Tradition-include all believers who wish to engage in the affairs of this world according to the precedent set by the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, his followers and those who followed them in the 300 to 500 years after his death. This is a huge tent and, yet, it does not include everyone.

The reason it is inclusive and exclusive has to do with the thorny issue of continuity in the Tradition. The dispute over continuity has turned into a crisis of global proportion among Muslims today. If the sunna is the link between the Prophet Muhammad and his followers who have come after him, how can the latter be sure the Tradition they have inherited is valid?

The vast majority of ordinary Muslims will generally go to great lengths to ensure that their beliefs and actions, in particular those prescribed by religion, conform to the Tradition of the Messenger of God. The Muslims’ preoccupation with authenticity in following the Tradition is unprecedented when compared with the Jewish or Christian faith communities.

Authenticity, however, is going to be constantly challenged in the process of handing down any tradition. Transmission obviously involves adaptation and interpretation, which, any keen observer will admit, makes it susceptible to corruption. This was often the challenge with oral traditions, but it is also a major concern with written traditions.

The early Muslim community knew that the only way to apply the Islamic Tradition and be right nine times out of 10 was to rely on a body of authority. The early experts of Islamic law, theology and spiritual psychology developed a rigorous intellectual methodology to ensure that the sunna of God’s Messenger would not only survive, but be transmitted intact to subsequent generations of believers.

First in line among the experts were the muhadithin, men and women who were adept at gathering, classifying and transmitting the authentic hadith, or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. They are important because hadith are the raw material that the masters of the sacred Islamic sciences depended on to assemble and shape the edifice of the Islamic Tradition.

The linchpin of their methodology is known as isnad or silsilah. Isnad is the human link that keeps Tradition constant over time. In concrete terms, it means that any community that is committed to authenticity must hinge its practice of the Tradition on the doors of scholars who studied with scholars, who took their knowledge from scholars, in a continuous and unbroken chain all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. This is no ordinary matter. The spiritual lifeline of the believers depends on this system working. And for hundreds of years, it was the heartbeat of the Tradition.

The classical term coined to describe followers of the sunna and the experts of the sacred sciences charged with preserving it was ahlus-sunna wal-jama’ah, literally, “the people of the Prophetic Tradition and the majority.”

Ahlus-Sunna-the people of Tradition-are often referred to in shorthand as Sunnis. The term needs to be rescued from abuse by anyone who thinks it still has any credible religious relevance. ‘Sunni’ is a highly ambiguous and imprecise term, and at a time when faith and power are commingled in Muslim societies, it has become an “ism”. In popular discourse, Sunnis are the ones who “clash with Shi’as in sectarian violence in the streets of Karachi”, or they are “militant Sunnis” in reference to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and now it’s the “deadly Sunni triangle” in Iraq. ‘Sunna’ and ‘Sunnis’ are very different; the former is divinely protected from error, the latter evidently aren’t.

The term jama’ah, or majority, represents the consensus of the Muslim scholars and the majority of Muslims who accept their determinations. The consensus of the scholars on any given matter of law, theology or spirituality coalesced in the first 300 years of Islam to become the point of reference for the majority of believers on what exactly constitutes a valid or invalid application of the Tradition.

In other words, the claim that an act is from the Islamic Tradition is given legitimacy only when that claim receives the stamp of approval from a recognized body of scholars. The impressive collection of work produced by these scholars over the years is often referred to as the Islamic intellectual heritage; anyone who discards this does so at his own peril and not that of the Tradition itself.

Yet the points of contention in the Muslim community today exist precisely at the crossroads of those who lay claim to the Tradition and those historically entrusted with the task of preserving, transmitting and interpreting it.

The vast majority of Muslims find themselves caught up in a wild street brawl between two very vocal groups. Incidentally, they both stake their claims to the sunna. One group posits its authority in a consciousness-fuelled by fear-that any omission, deviation or innovation (bid’a) from the Prophetic Way will most certainly result in misguidance and thus the displeasure of God and His punishment in the afterlife.
The other group offers a stark counterclaim. The Prophet, they say, was sent as the Messenger of Mercy; by being tolerant towards others, one is preserving his sunna. Love and compassion, they reason, will lead to the pleasure of God in the afterlife and the company of the blessed Prophet.

Both groups delve into the books of hadith and cherrypick whatever suits their individual predilections. To make matters worse, they consider their arguments and the claims they put forward to be a legitimate application of ijtihad, the engagement of a finely tuned intellectual mind, profound legal reasoning and deep spiritual reflection to resolve a matter that requires clarity in issues relating to sacred law. Yet they have none of the requisite skills to practice ijtihad. They might have the ability to appreciate what ijtihad is, much like a child might understand what syllogism is if you explain it properly. But to allow them the freedom to practice it is akin to allowing them to wield a butcher’s knife in a surgeon’s room. You don’t do that unless you wish to kill the patient.

The architects of these two divergent projects claim they are rescuing the Tradition from paralysis; that they are giving life to an otherwise ossified Tradition. Rather, the opposite is taking place: Muslims without firm grounding in their Tradition have become rudderless ships aimlessly floating through life.

The first grave mistake their high priests make is to unhinge the sunna from the doors of the scholars. Without the scholars, Muslims have no access to the sunna. That leaves them only with the books of hadith. They ignore the fact that to get from hadith to sunna required a colossal intellectual effort. But there appears to be no shortage of hubris in their ranks. They become belligerent, angry and even foul-mouthed when cautioned that it is risky for an average person to discard the Islamic intellectual heritage. When pushed for the basis of their religious opinions, they cite modern scholars who either operate outside the Islamic intellectual tradition such as those in modern Western universities, or they pretend to operate from within the Tradition only to subvert it by callously rejecting and replacing unequivocal rulings from earlier masters.

The group driven by fear has delivered up an extremely long list of prohibited things, while those committed to free love have long discarded any list at all. It is a clash between a Literal fundamentalism on the one hand and a Liberal fundamentalism on the other. Both use the pulpit to preach their own version of the Islamic Tradition. The mass media embraces both with equal enthusiasm because they attack each other with acridity. When Professor Amina Wadud got up to deliver her one-hour-15-minute epic sermon at a Synod in New York City in the spring 2005, where men and women prayed side by side, young angry men pounded the pavement outside damning her and her followers to hell.

Many young Muslims living in the West are beginning to realize that anyone who rejects the scholars of Ahlus-Sunna cannot claim to be people of the Islamic Tradition even if they are the most articulate spokesmen and women who appear frequently in Western or Eastern media outlets.

Young Muslims are learning to quickly detect a Traditional scholar from a fake. A Traditional scholar will embrace all four madhahib, or schools of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), while personally preferring one. He or she will adhere to one of only two acceptable schools of Islamic creed: the Maturidi or ‘Ash’ari. Third, a traditional scholar will never dismiss Tasammuf (Sufism), or the Islamic spiritual science, as hocus-pocus nonsense. These are the three cardinal pillars of the Islamic Tradition today.

With clarity comes a tendency to close ranks. The people of Tradition have always been remarkably tolerant and that’s because the Islamic Tradition is vast. It allows for a wide range of valid practices. Take, for example, the Prophet’s command: “Pray as you see me pray.” From this came four different and legitimate applications that have been valid for more than a thousand years. There is no need to revisit the matter unless a new issue arises. Armed with the books of hadith, unhinged from the jama’ah, the freethinkers aggressively pursue a single prayer formula not realizing that the consequence of their actions is what Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad aptly described as “jurisprudential chaos.”

Sheikh Hamza Yusuf’s approach to teaching the Islamic tradition in the West for the past 15 years provides a remarkable example of just how vast the Islamic intellectual tradition is. On any given issue of contention in the Tradition, he always explains the position of the jama’ah and encourages ordinary Muslims to make their actions conform to it. At the same time, he would cite valid minority opinions and ask that they too be given respect. To reject minority opinions that are from within the sacred Tradition, Sheikh Hamza warns, is to erode the beauty and rich diversity of the Tradition itself in the hearts of its subscribers.

Since writing The Spirit of the Islamic Tradition six years ago, there has been a significant return to Tradition and this trend will continue to take firm roots in our communities on the shoulders of hundreds of young teachers who, while not yet fully grounded in the intellectual tradition, are nevertheless adept at transmitting verbatim to students what they have learned of the Tradition from their teachers through the medium of core Islamic texts. Anyone who wishes to walk this noble path today would do well to start by studying with them.

  • Most Viewed This Week on TIM

  • Latest comments on TIM

  • About the autor

    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at islamicamagazine.com as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

    Latest at tim

    See our Current issue

    Join our Newsletter

    Enter your e-mail address below to receive periodic updates from The Islamic Monthly.

  • Follow us on


    Comments are closed