The Relation Between the Sunnah and the Seerah: Understanding the Prophet’s Biography from Authentic Sources

By Sheikh Salman al-Oadah

Knowledge of the biography of our Prophet, peace be upon him, is of paramount importance. We need to derive this knowledge from the most authentic sources.

Foremost of these sources is the Quran. It provides us with a considerable amount of guidance from the Prophet, peace be upon him, including his conduct during war and peace, at home and while traveling, and even in his domestic life. Books have been written on the subject of the biographical data that can be gleaned from the Quran.

There is another exquisite source of biographical information that people often do not think about when researching the life of the Prophet, peace be upon him, this source is the various compilations of Hadith that make up our knowledge of the Sunnah. These books contain an enormous wealth of authenticated historical reports that not only give us detailed information about the Prophet’s life, but also glimpses into the society of his time. Much of this detail is absent from the biographical works written about the Prophet.

From the time of Ibn Kathîr and his historical work al-Bidâyah wa al-Nihâyah, a few scholars have undertaken to compile together the biographical information found in the Sunnah. Ibn al-Qayyim’s Zâd al-Ma’âd is an excellent example. Even earlier, there were Hadith collections that focused on different aspects of the Prophet’s life, such as al-Bayhaqî’s Dalâ’il al-Nubuwwah and Abû Na’îm’s book by the same name. Now, a number of contemporary scholars have attempted to compile biographical works on the life of the Prophet, peace be upon him, drawing their references from from the authentic Sunnah. My own humble attempt at this approach is my book entitled al-Ghurabâ al-Awwalûn (The First Strangers).

I do not intend here to list the body of work that has been produced in this field. My only intention is to emphasize the fact that if a researcher devotes all of his attentions to the old biographical source works, he will not be able to confirm all of the historical events that he would like to. However, the answers to his questions may very easily be found in the Sunnah.

Take for instance, the events that took place when the tribe of Quraysh imposed a boycott on the Muslims and posted their oppressive resolution inside the Ka’bah. These events have been clearly described in the Sunnah.

We have where the Prophet, peace be upon him, said when he wanted to advance upon Mecca:

We will arrive tomorrow – with the will of Allah – in the lands of the tribe of Kinânah where they pledged each other to unbelief.

[Sahîh al-Bukhârî and Sahîh Muslim]

This Hadith tells us that tribe of Kinânah made an alliance with Quraysh that they would cooperate in the boycott of the clans of Banû Hâshim and Banû al-Muttalib, neither marrying with them nor doing any business with them until they surrendered the Prophet, peace be upon him. There is another similar narration in Sahîh al-Bukhârî and Sahîh Muslim. However, this event is almost never found related with a chain of transmission in the books of biography. Therefore, it can only be authenticated by referring to the books of the Sunnah.

The nature of biographical inquiry compels the researcher to look into various aspects of the society in which the person under investigation lives. The Prophet’s biography in not a mere record of the events that the Prophet, peace be upon him, experienced throughout his life. It is far more than that. It is a reliable record of Muslim society as a whole, showing all aspects of Muslim private, social, and political life.

This depiction of the first Muslim society provides the scholar and the jurist with another way of approaching the problems that face them, like apparent contradictions between two texts. This is especially true when it comes to issues affecting the general public, like those pertaining to water and purification, the times of prayer, the manner of performing the call to prayer, and dealing with people of other faiths. Often the only way to decisively answer such questions is to refer to the biography of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and the history of that first Muslim society.

For example, among the contentious questions in Islamic Law is whether a new convert must take a bath upon entering Islam, even if he was not previously in a state of major ritual impurity. We know for a fact that the people who were with the Prophet, peace be upon him, were all converts to Islam and that these converts numbered in the tens of thousands. We must assume that there were far more than that, since there were over 100,000 Muslims that accompanied the Prophet during his farewell pilgrimage. Is it conceivable that all of these people were ordered to bathe upon accepting Islam without any report of it reaching us except in the single instance of Qays ibn Asim? It is a fact that the Prophet, peace be upon him, ordered Qays to take a bath after he entered into Islam. However, this isolated case is by no means proof that every convert to Islam is obligated to do so.

Another good example is the peculiar claim that the body of a polytheist is impure and physical contact with him should be avoided. There have been people who have gone so far as to contend that a Muslim must perform ablutions after coming in contact with a pagan. However, how can we even entertain such a claim knowing that the Prophet, peace be upon him, and his Companions used to live among the pagans of Mecca, and that the Prophet may have been a guest at their homes and ate and drank from their dishes?

It is for reasons such as these that the great jurist Malik ibn Anas considered the practice of the people of Medina to be valid evidence for matters of Islamic Law. He considered it a practical manifestation of the Sunnah that was passed down collectively from the practice of the Companions.

These two examples are merely indicative of the value the biography of the Prophet, peace be upon him, for the study of Islamic Law. From this biography, we get a detailed image of a proper Islamic way of life. We get a carefully studied understanding of how to apply Islam within our society, in politics, and in our dealings with others both in peace and in war.

This is why it is so essential that we submit the biographical literature to various types of scrutiny – not just that of authentication – so we can better understand the society, politics, and international affairs of the Muslims so we can better guide all aspects of our lives in the light of Islam.

( / 10.04.2012)

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