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Sources of wisdom and authority in Islamic sacred texts

In this article Dr Mustafa Shah outlines some of the most important textual sources of wisdom and authority in Islam, in both Sunni and Shi‘a traditions. Among them are hadith, sunnah, shari‘ah, tafsīr and kalam.

The classical Islamic literary tradition boasts a prolific range of literary genres that developed around the study of its two principal textual sources, the Qur’an and the Prophetic traditions (hadith). Impressive in their sophistication and originality, these genres range from the disciplines of law, theology, exegesis, biography and the linguistic sciences. This essay looks at the key sacred texts of Islam, and how the sources of its wisdom and authority have been preserved and the scholarship that has interpreted them.

The principal textual sources: The Qur’an, hadiths and Sunnah

Constellated around the central theme of God’s unity, and sharing a spiritual heritage with Judaism and Christianity, the Qur’an serves as the foundational text of the Islamic faith, enshrining its teachings and beliefs across a gamut of theological, legal, ritual, ethical and eschatological questions. Treated with similar reverence are reports that record the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, collected together in a corpus of material referred to as Hadith. Some accounts are pithy and concise, while others include lengthy statements, covering a range of topics: his rulings and judgements, testimonies, words of exhortation, personal qualities and accounts of key historical events in his lifetime. An example of its use is that while the Qur’an prescribes the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca, the hadiths supply an intricately exhaustive range of detail pertaining to its performance.

There was opposition within the early Islamic tradition towards the writing down of the hadiths as it was believed that the transmission of knowledge should remain essentially oral. In this respect, Islam seemingly shares an epistemological distinction with Judaism, which differentiated between the written Torah and the Oral Torah. With the aim of safeguarding the Prophet’s legacy, this opposition was eventually surmounted, and the codification of traditions generated a voluminous corpus of literary materials. Moreover, for centuries much of the literary scholarship cultivated in Islam was based on the painstaking study of this textual source.

What is Sunnah?

The Prophetic Sunnah is the prevailing custom or precedent set by the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions, which expert scholars were able to distil from the material of the hadiths. Once synthesised and fleshed out, the Sunnah served as a normative paradigm and a source of law. The notion of Sunnah is by no means novel to Islam; it has its roots in the pre-Islamic tribal tradition, accentuating an exemplary way of acting and conducting oneself.

Kitab al-Sunnah

Kitab al-Sunnah

This 13th-century manuscript compiled by Abu Bakr al-Khallal al-Baghdadi is an extensive work containing the opinions and teachings of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, based on the Prophetic Sunnah.

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Hadiths and their structure

Each hadith consists of two concomitant elements: the isnad (support), which forms a chain of transmission listing the names of the individuals who passed down the report in question; and the matn (main text), which is the core of the report recounting the Prophet’s action or words. Isnads were introduced to verify the authenticity of the accounts, and scholars eventually developed a system of grading traditions, marking them as sahih (‘sound’), hasan (‘good’) or da‘if (‘weak’). With the aim of systematising approaches to these sources, scholars devised a science devoted exclusively to the process of authentication. There even existed texts in which summaries of the rules and axioms of this science were elegantly composed into poems. Over the course of Islamic history, in the same way that scholars dutifully memorised the text of the Qur’an, they committed to memory hundreds of thousands of hadiths and their isnads, routinely traversing different regions of the Islamic world seeking knowledge of the hadiths and their transmitters. Activity in this sphere also nurtured the development of Arabic biography. During the course of the 2nd and 3rd Islamic centuries (9th and 10th centuries CE), the genre of biographies flourished, with lengthy volumes being compiled that scrupulously recounted the names and personal details of individuals cited in the isnads. The study of genealogy and the history of tribes were already highly venerated in pre-Islamic Arabia.

Biography on the Companions

Biography on the Companions

This manuscript contains biographies of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad and their successors, by Abu Ja‘far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari.

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What are the principal Sunni collections of hadith?

Within Sunni scholarship, compilations of hadiths appeared in the 8th and 9th centuries CE, the most prominent of which were the works of Muhammad ibn Isma‘il al-Bukhari (d. 870) and Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj (d. 875). Intimating their coveted status in Islam, their books were referred to honorifically as the two Sahihs (collections of authentic hadiths). Al-Bukhari even affixed the term Jami‘ to the title of his collection to accentuate the comprehensive coverage of his work. Dividing his work into ninety-seven thematically arranged chapters, he is reported to have rigorously sifted through hundreds of thousands of hadiths before selecting just over 7,000 reports for his collection. The extensive range of subjects he included covers topics such as prayer, fasting, almsgiving, pilgrimage and other key matters of ritual, to areas such as piety, etiquette, the interpretation of dreams, medicine and subjects pertaining to personal law.

Hadith collection

Hadith Collection. The page is wider than usual, with an aged brown colour. Calligraphy is mainly in black, with some key words in red.

Our oldest dated manuscript of al-Bukhari’s collection of hadith, one of the six canonical hadith collections that are widely accepted by Sunni Muslims.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

During the periods that al-Bukhari and Muslim were compiling their works, other influential collections appeared, including compilations by Abu Dawud al-Sijistani (d. 888), al-Tirmidhi (d. 892), al-Nasa’i (d. 915) and Ibn Majah (d. 886). In the medieval period the deferential title ‘The Six Books’ was used in recognition of the cachet of these works. Extended commentaries were written on each of these texts; indeed, in the case of al-Bukhari’s collection, many were composed, although none surpassed in excellence the work of the Egyptian scholar Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani (d. 1449), Fath al-Bari, which comprised over twenty volumes. The critical role reserved for the corpus of traditions in Islamic thought is widely accepted in modern academic studies, although the question of their origins and authenticity has been disputed.

What are the principal Shi‘a collections of hadith?

Disagreements as to who was the rightful successor to the Prophet have historically divided Sunni and Shi‘a branches of Islam. Within Shi‘a Islam the choice of leader (imam) is believed to be conferred by divine will on the immediate family of the Prophet. Reflecting this distinction, Shi‘a collections of traditions contained not only the statements and deeds of the Prophet, but also views about the designated imams, who were considered to be infallible.

Among the most eminent Shi‘a hadith works are al-Kafi fi uṣul al-din by al-Kulayni (d. 940), the renowned Man la yahduruhu al-faqih by Ibn Babawayhi (d. 991) and the Usul al-arbaʿumi’a, although one of the most voluminous collections of Shi‘a traditions, entitled Bihar al-anwar, was compiled by the Persian scholar al-Majlisi (d. 1698). The study of these traditions formed the basis of Shi‘a legal and theological discourses.

Shi‘ite fatwas in the Kitab Tadhkirat al-Fuqaha’, 17th century

Double page from Shi'ite fatwas in the Kitab Tadhkirat al-Fuqaha', 17th century, f002v-003r

Compiled by al-Hasan ibn Yusuf, known as al-Mutahhar al-Hilli, this book, the Kitab Tadhkirat al-Fuqaha’ (Memorandum for Jurists), is a compendium of fatwas: a collection of formal opinions and decisions on legal cases according to the Shi‘a school of law.

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Hadith and sirah

Among the many subjects that feature in the collection of traditions is the theme of sirah, a term conventionally equated with biography and history. It was used to refer to hadiths that provide insights into specific junctures in Muhammad’s life. Designed to be less formal, this unique literary genre devoted to the life of the Prophet developed in the early 2nd century (9th century CE). These biographies used isnads sparingly. The earliest text of this nature was composed by a figure who was also an adept scholar of hadiths, Muhammad ibn Ishaq (d. 767). He compiled the text at the behest of the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (r. 754–775). The original work is not extant, although an abbreviated version of the text survives. Such materials were later assimilated into the narratives of more universal histories such as the famous History of Prophets and Kings (Taʾrikh al-rusul wa’l-muluk) authored by al-Tabari (d. 923). It offered vivid and polished accounts of the beginning of creation and the lives of the prophets and caliphs.

What is Islamic law (Shari‘ah) and the sources of law?

The discipline of jurisprudence (fiqh) provides the conceptual instruments and contexts for the interpretation of the law. There are four sources of law: the Qur’an, the Sunnah (as distilled from the hadiths), qiyas (the concept of analogical reasoning) and ijma‘ (consensus). The concepts of qiyas and ijma‘ are used to legislate in the absence of rulings from the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Qiyas can be defined as ‘deduction by analogy’, whereby jurists seek to establish a new ruling on the basis of a correlation with an existing one. Ijma‘ represents the notion of consensus reached by a group of scholars on a new point of law or ruling which came to be considered binding. The concerted effort made by qualified scholars in seeking to expand and interpret the law was referred to ijtihad. The authority of Sunni ijma’  is not binding in Shi‘a legal schools of thought, due to their differing positions on the authority of the imams. Although scholars were able to ground and find justification for these concepts through reference to the Qur’an and Sunnah, neither of these concepts was able to override or supersede their authority. One of the earliest treatises in which a synthesis of the sources of Islamic law is presented is the work entitled al-Risalah (the 'Epistle'), by the jurist al-Shafi‘i (d. 820). In classical Sunni Islam four schools of jurisprudence came to dominate: the Hanafi, Shafi‘i, Maliki and Hanbali schools, named after their founders.

What is tafsīr?

The formal interpretation of the Qur’an developed into the discipline of tafsīr, a term which connotes ‘explanation’ and ‘commentary’. Classical commentaries, or tafsīrs, encompassed an extensive range of approaches and formats. Some texts sought to focus on specific themes such as the grammatical, philological or rhetorical aspects of the Qur’an or even its mystical features; others sought to amalgamate legal, theological, grammatical and narrative treatments of the text. Providing a platform for the expression of faith, the science of tafsīr earned a revered place among Islam’s classical literary traditions.

Qur’an Commentary, Tafsir

Qur’an Commentary, Tafsir

Qur’an commentary by al-Zamakhshari.

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Within Sunni Islam, the most celebrated commentary was the work composed by the historian and exegete Abu Ja‘far al-Tabari, author of the seminal history titled Jami‘ al-bayan ‘an ta’wil ayy al-Qur’an in over thirty volumes. Among the most influential Shi‘a commentaries of the Qur’an was the Tibyan fi tafsir al-Qur’an, a work written by Abu Ja‘far al-Tusi (d. 1067). Among the first commentaries of the Qur’an that found their way into the libraries of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries were the texts compiled by al-Zamakhshari (d. 1144) and al-Baydawi (d. 1319).

An early Persian translation and commentary of the Qur’an

Qur'an commentary, Persian

A 12th-century copy of the Persian translation and commentary on the Qurʼan by ʻAtīq ibn Muḥammad Sūrābādī.

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The former’s text, al-Kashshaf, set the benchmark for rhetorical treatments of the Qur’an, while the latter’s text, entitled Anwar al-tanzil, had the distinction of being the first printed critical edition of a tafsīr manuscript produced in Europe (1846–48).

Theology (kalam)

The field of Islamic theology encapsulates frameworks and discourses for the rational defence of the doctrines and dogma of Islam. The term kalam (‘word' or 'discourse’) originally referred to a form of discussion in which dialectical arguments were employed, but the term eventually became synonymous with general theological thought. The discourses fostered within kalam were remarkably original and serve as testimony to the intellectual vitality of the discipline. In their works, theologians assiduously grappled with questions such as the nature of the attributes of God and the theodicy, causality, cosmology, ontology and arguments for the existence of God. One of the most celebrated medieval theologians was Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1209), whose erudition and intellectual achievements are widely acknowledged as being exceptional. His work, the Muhassal, was a key reference text in the field of classical theological thought, representing a culmination of centuries of scholarship.


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Guillaume, Alfred, The Life of Muḥammad (translation of the redaction of Ibn Hisham’s life of the Prophet) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955) 

Hallaq, Wael, Introduction to Islamic Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Khalidi, Tarif, Arabic Historical Thought in the Classical Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)

McAuliffe, Jane Dammen, Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Schoeler, Gregor,The Genesis of Literature in Islam: From the Aural to the Read (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009)

Shah, Mustafa (ed.), The Hadiths, 4 vols. (London: Routledge 2009)

Rippin, Andrew, The Islamic World (London, New York: Routledge, 2008)

  • Mustafa Shah
  • Mustafa Shah is a Senior Lecturer in Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). His principal research interests include classical Qurʾanic commentary, ḥadith scholarship, classical theology and Arabic linguistic thought. Among his publications is the collection of articles devoted to Qur’anic exegesis: Tafsīr: Interpreting the Qur’an (Routledge, 2013). He is also joint editor of the Oxford Handbook of Qur’anic Studies (OUP 2019).

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.