Reviving the Balance The Authority of the Qur’an and the Status of the Sunnah By Taha Jabir Alalwani (Herndon: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2017. 224 pages.)

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Mobeen Vaid

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Abstract

Ibn Wahb (d. 197/813), a disciple of Malik (179/795), is reported to have
said, “We were once with Malik and made mention of the Sunnah. [Upon
hearing this] Malik proclaimed, The Sunnah is Noah’s Ark—whoever
boards it will be saved, and whoever refuses will drown.’” Sentiment like
Malik’s is not difficult to locate. Many of the early jurists rooted the legitimacy
of their legal hermeneutic in a steadfast commitment to the traditions
of the Prophet. Thus, the oft-quoted remark of al-Shafi‘i, “If a hadith is authentic,
then it is my madhhab.” This rhetorical commitment, however, was
a negotiated one. Prophetic traditions proliferated in the early period, and
distinguishing sound narrations from weak ones was not a simple task. Further
complicating matters, jurists were responsible for determining divine
intent not only in light of evolving cultural, social, and political realities, but
for matters that were not immediately resolved by recourse to the Qur’an
and prophetic tradition. Moreover, how to interpret prophetic instruction
required knowledge of the mitigating circumstances present at the time of
utterance. Were the Prophet’s words conditional or general? Were his words
abrogated by later command? Under what circumstances were they said?
Did the underlying circumstances even matter? These questions and more
occupied the early juristic community as they canonized a defensible legal
heuristic that situated the Prophet’s words and actions within a normative
framework ...

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