Rethinking Tradition: Modern Discussions of Sunna in Egypt and Pakistan

Brown, Daniel W.

     In this dissertation I examine a number of approaches to prophetic tradition (sunna) which have arisen during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as Muslims have struggled to preserve, revive, or redefine their social and legal norms in the face of changed conditions. My approach is historical, describing the circumstances under which given individuals or groups have adopted a particular approach to sunna and analyzing the contexts in which various theological, historical and methodological issues have been raised in debates about sunna. . . . I synthesize what is known about how the idea of sunna developed in early Islam, showing that challenges to the authority of sunna are not in fact new; they mirror similar discussions in pre-classical Islam, are couched in similar terms, and give every indication of being an indigenous Islamic response to internal conflicts. . . . I trace the emergence of new and competing approaches to sunna during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries among groups ranging in approach from the literalism of the Indian Ahl-i-Hadith to the quasi-rationalist scripturalism of Ghulam Ahmad Parwez and Mahmud Abu Rayya. I argue that each attempt to wrestle with the proper role of sunna was guided by the need to develop an acceptable rationale to adapt or reform existing social and legal norms by reevaluating the role of sunna. In each case, coming to terms with sunna was viewed by those concerned as central to their program for the revival of Islam.
     Following these two introductory chapters, I take up, under three headings, the major topoi that have emerged in modern discussions of sunna: (1) Theological issues: Among theological premises upon which the authority of sunna rests are the non-temporal authority of the Prophet as not only a religious but also a political leader, his divinely guaranteed immunity from error, and the revealed nature of his extra-qur'anic actions and utterances. . . (2) Historical issues: . . . I describe challenges to the historicity of hadith, attempts to refute these challenges, and attempts to find a compromise position that preserves the authority of sunna while still allowing for skepticism about hadith (e.g., the work of Fazlur Rahman). . . . (3) Methodological issues: For those who accept the basic theological authority of sunna and also accept the essential reliability of hadith as a class, the problem still remains of determining exactly which hadith are to be relied upon and to what extent the method of and evaluations made by early Muslim hadith critics are to be trusted. It is here that the contemporary crisis becomes most evident; a great many authors are unwilling to accept at face value all of the traditions passed on to them as sahih, yet no method of hadith criticism other than the classical system has been widely accepted."
     In my conclusion I sum up my arguments made throughout that: (1) discussions about sunna are not so much about the actual authority attributed to the Prophet as over the manner in which that authority should be manifested and over which individuals or groups can legitimately be considered heirs to the Prophet's authority; and (2) modern debates over sunna are only tangentially related to western influence, to the influence of rationalism, or to the specific findings of orientalist scholarship of hadith.