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Interpreting “Sunnah”: The Practice of the People of Madinah in View of the Māliki School

door archBy Aisha Bewley

You probably have heard the term, “the ‘amal of the people of Madina” and wondered what it means and what all the fuss is about. What is ‘amal or action? What does it mean and where does it come from? What does it have to do with us? This topic is one which is fraught with misunderstanding because most people have no idea what it means, and this difficulty in grasping the concept of ‘amal is a result from what has happened to the Muslims, because of the development and imposition of a statist methodology and mentality onto Muslim learning – a process which really began to solidify from the time of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, about 250 AH, a process which has been largely covered up or ignored, a process which has left the Muslims paralysed and unable to deal realistically or authentically with the situation in which they find themselves today.

To understand why the concept of the ‘amal of Madina has been swept to one side is to understand why the Muslims are now powerless, and to understand exactly what the ‘amal of Madina really is, is to understand the direction that the Muslims must take in order to re-activate Islam as a political force. This, I hope, will become clear in the course of this talk.

We have to ask ourselves: what is the basis of a Muslim’s behaviour? What sources must we turn to in order to know how to conduct our lives? What is the guideline for our behaviour? The answer is simple: the Qur’an and Sunna. We have little trouble with Qur’an. But then we come to the real crux of the problem I have mentioned: if we are to follow the Sunna, just what is the Sunna and how do we find it? This is the core question which must be answered because, in fact, what the Sunna does is to explain the Qur’an in terms of behaviour. It is the way in which the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم behaved, and it shows us how the guidance of the Qur’an is transformed into actual behaviour to which we can aspire.

To unravel the answer to what the Sunna is, we need to understand two additional terms: hadith and ‘amal.

What is hadith? A hadith is a verbal transmission from the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. It is a report of what he said or did which is transmitted from person to person by a known chain of transmission. Many people have come to regard the corpus of hadith as being the same as the Sunna, and indeed people sometimes openly state this. For example, “The Prime Sources of the religion of Islam are the Qur’an and the Hadith.” (Shari’ah: The Islamic Law, ‘Abdu’r-Rahman I. Doi) or “All the articles of faith … are based on and derived from the teachings of the Qur’an and the Traditions of Muhammad.” (Islam in Focus, Hammudah Abdalati) There is a muddling here of the two terms which will become clear.

We are often given a picture of the Muslims suddenly falling into a state of panic about losing the Sunna and frantically attempting to authenticate it and write it down before it was swept away. But what was written down were the hadiths, and so there is a “hadith = sunna” assumption. It you want a more detailed exposition of how this move to a hadith-based Islam happened and how the entire methodology of hadith has been developed and codified, read Root Islamic Education by Shaykh Abdalqadir al-Murabit. It would take too long to go into here.

In any case, this hadith-based view is obviously a rather anachronistic view of the early period. People were doing the prayer, performing hajj, doing wudu’, collecting zakat, carrying on their lives as Muslims in Madina as they had done from the time of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم right up to Malik and beyond. Any conflict would only arise if someone came with something new, and then it would have to be compared with the existing practice. They did not reach for a volume of hadith. They were not a bookish people. Transmission was immediate and direct. What did people do? Or, as Malik said, “If you want knowledge, then take up residence, i.e. in Madina. The Qur’an was not revealed on the Euphrates,” i.e. in Iraq.

In Iraq, however, there were few Companions, and Iraq was new to Islam. To find out what was correct, people would have to go to a Companion and ask, and then they would get one opinion of one person, be it in the form of an opinion, a fatwa, or a hadith. Furthermore, it was in this environment, in Iraq, that forgery of hadith took place and the whole science of hadith, its texts, its men, etc. developed in order to ascertain the authenticity of the hadith. As Ibn Taymiyya said, “There were no people of a city who lied more than the people of Kufa.” It is also well-known that Malik and the people of Madina did not normally accept the hadith of the people of Iraq because there were so many liars there and the Iraqis did not distinguish between those who were truthful and the liars.

There is a dangerous assumption which underlies this picture of Muslims trying to preserve the Sunna by writing down the hadiths, and that is the assumption that hadith is synonymous with Sunna. This was not, and is not the case: HADITH IS NOT SYNONYMOUS WITH SUNNA. You cannot pick up the collections of hadith, read them, and then uncover the Sunna from them. So hadith is not synonymous with Sunna. You will not be able to have direct access to the Sunna via hadiths. Indeed, in the time of the Prophet, the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم had forbidden them to write down other than the Qur’an from him. He told them to wipe out all that they had written, and then he later permitted it. But there is an indication of the desire to avoid elevating hadiths to the level of the Qur’an.

This leaves us with ‘amal. ‘Amal literally means “action” and refers to the agreed-upon practice of the people of Madina. So ‘amal includes the sunna of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم and also the ijtihād, or individual judgement, of later authorities, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab in particular. The Sunna is the practice of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم and so all sunna is ‘amal, but not all ‘amal is sunna.

Amal is an integral part of the sunna. The sunna is not, as we said, synonymous with hadith because hadiths, while agreed to be completely authentic and sound, both in text and isnād, were not necessarily acted upon in the early period in Madina, and thus were not part of the sunna. The ‘amal is the normative practice of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم or that of the first four khalifs, the Companions and their Successors, the Tābi’ūn, and the generation after them, the Tabi’u’t-Tābi’īn. Zayd ibn Thabit, the famous Companion, stated, “When you see the people of Madina doing something, know that it is the sunna.” This clearly refers to the ‘amal, to “doing”, and not to a verbal transmission. Thus sunna and ‘amal are, in fact, closer to being synonyms than hadith and sunna, and you often find them being used as such: “The sunna of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs,” for instance.

The position of hadith has become rather entrenched and rigidified today. There is, however, a very serious problem [in] taking hadiths as your basis for behaviour. That is that in order to use the hadiths, you need to have fiqh or understanding. Ibn Wahb said, “Anyone who knows a hadith but does not have an imam in fiqh is astray (dāll),” and Ibn ‘Uyayna said, “Hadiths are a source of misguidance except for the fuqahā’.” You must have criteria for deciding what hadith mean, which ones are abrogated, which ones you must act by and which ones you must leave.

The criterion of Madina was the ‘amal. If a hadith conflicted with the ‘amal, the hadith was ignored. In fact, the hadith in question might well have been superseded, referred to a particular situation, etc. In fact, if you think about the things which you recount to someone, you do tend to recount the unusual rather than the mundane and everyday. And, in any case as regards transmission of hadith, as Ibn Taymiyya categorically states, “The people of Madina were the soundest of the people of the cities in both transmission and opinion. Their hadith is the soundest of hadiths. The people of knowledge of hadith agree that the soundest of hadiths are the hadiths of the people of Madina and then the hadiths of the people of Basra.” Furthermore, the actual hadith transmissions of Malik were considered to be the most trustworthy of any. Al-Bukhari said that the isnād, “Malik from Nafi’ from Ibn ‘Umar”, is “the golden chain of authority”. Whenever Bukhari has a hadith from Malik in any section of his Sahīh, it is Malik’s transmission which he puts first.

Regarding the position of ‘amal vis-`a-vis hadith in Madina, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab stated on the minbar, “By Allah Almighty I will make it difficult for a man who relates a hadith different from it (the ‘amal).” Ibn al-Qasim and Ibn Wahb said, “I saw that in Malik’s opinion, action (‘amal) was stronger than the hadith.” Malik said, “The men from the people of knowledge among the Followers conveyed hadiths which had been conveyed to them from others and they said, ‘We are not ignorant of this, but the past action is other than it.'”

Malik said:

I saw Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr ibn ‘Amr ibn Hazm who was a Qādi (judge). His brother was ‘Abdullah, a truthful man who had a lot of hadiths. When Muhammad gave a judgement in which a hadith had come contrary to the judgement, I heard ‘Abdullah criticise him, saying, “Hasn’t this and this come in this hadith?” He said, “Yes.” His brother said to him, “Then what is wrong with you? Why don’t you give judgement by it?” He said, “Where are the people in respect to it?” i.e. what is the consensus of action in Madina? He meant that the action is stronger than the hadith in it.

Ibn Mahdi said, “The established sunna from the sunna of the people of Madina is better than the hadith.” This clearly shows the difference between Sunna and hadith. (Ibn Mahdi died in 186 AH and was one of the greatest hadith scholars of his time in Madina.) He added, “It may be that I have a hadith on a subject and then I find that the people of the courtyard have something different than that. Therefore it becomes weak in my estimation.” And there is the famous statement of Rabī’a, “I prefer a thousand from a thousand over one from one because one from one can strip the Sunna out of your hands.” This is precisely what has happened.

Why is this the case? Malik said:

About so many thousand Companions came with the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم from a certain expedition at such-and-such a time. About 10,000 of them died in Madina, and the rest split up in the cities. Which would you prefer to follow and whose words would you prefer to take? Those in whose presence the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم died with his Companions I mentioned, or the one who died with one or two of the Companions of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم.

There are four possibilities which can arise in the area of ‘amal versus hadith, :

1. The ‘amal is in agreement with the hadith, and so the ‘amal supports the validity of the hadith.

2. The ‘amal is in accord with one hadith, but is contradicted by another hadith. The existence of the ‘amal makes the first hadith the one preferred.

3. The ‘amal contradicts all the hadiths. If the ‘amal is from the time of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم it is preferred because this category of ‘amal is definitively authoritative and has a multiple transmission (mutawātir) whereas the other hadiths, being single transmissions, one from one, are merely probable. If the ‘amal is based on ijtihād, then there is some disagreement about this.

4. There is hadith but no ‘amal. Then the hadith is followed, and there is some disagreement about this.

Now, we must ask, why is the ‘amal here preferred over the hadith? Hadiths are divided into two types: mutawātir hadiths which derive from a large number of Companions, and single hadiths which go back to a single Companion. Amal is mutawātir, in that it comes from a large number of Companions, and it represents the consensus of the bulk of the Companions, who were in Madina, and their agreed-upon practice. The multiple transmission dominates the single one – the one from a single Companion – and thus ‘amal predominates. A clear picture of why the ‘amal is preferred is given by Ibn Qutayba (d. 276/889):

In our opinion the truth is more likely to be established by ijma‘ than by the transmissions of hadith. Hadith may be subject to forgetfulness, error, uncertainties, different possible interpretations and abrogation; someone trustworthy may transmit from someone who is not; there may be two different commands, both of which are possible, such as making either one or two taslīm [at the end of the prayer.] Similarly, a man may have been present when the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم gave a certain command and then been absent when he told people to do something different. He will then transmit the first command and not the second because he does not know it. Ijma‘, however, is free from such vicissitudes.

Thus in Madina at the time of Malik, there was a transmission of one generation to another generation and this took place in the city of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم where the people were following the pattern of behaviour which he had demonstrated. It is not possible that a whole generation would stop doing something and then do something new without something extraordinary happening. In the time of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم it would have been a direct command. Short of that, there would be no reason for it to change. This is clearly seen [in] things like the measures of the sa‘ and the mudd and taking Zakāt al-Fitr using them, the form of the adhān and the iqāma, not saying the basmala aloud in the prayer, allowing the waqf, etc. These were followed by all in Madina and their practice went back to the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم and his Companions. Malik refers to it as “an inheritance which was bequeathed from generation to generation up until our time.”

This seems such a logical position to take that we must look at what happened historically to alter this position because such a radical shift of position really is quite extraordinary, [and Ibn Taymiyya is my main source for this].

The school of Madina was the soundest of the schools of all the other cities because they were the strongest in following the Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم and they had the firmest and fullest connection to what he left. You do not find madhhabs at this point. Madhhabs developed later. There were no Mālikis, no Hanafīs, no Shāfi’īs. At this point, if you qualified yourself, you were declaring yourself a member of sect – a Jahmi, a Mu’tazili, a Murji’i, or whatever.

Because of the strong connection which the Madinans had to the legacy of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, Ibn Taymiyya says, “This is why none of the Muslim scholars believed that the consensus of any of the cities except Madina was a proof which must be followed – not in those times nor after them.” He points out that no innovation emerged from Madina, while there were innovations in every other city, and that the appearance of innovations was commensurate with the distance from Madina. This is a very important statement: there were NO innovations in Madina, and the further you go from Madina, the greater the number and scope of innovations.

When Syria and Iraq were conquered, ‘Umar sent people to the cities to teach them the [Qur’an] and Sunna. ‘Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, Hudhayfa ibn al-Yaman, ‘Ammar ibn Yasir, ‘Imran ibn Husayn, Salman al-Farisi and others went to Iraq. Mu’adh ibn Jabal, ‘Ubada ibn as-Samit, Abu’d-Darda’, Bilal ibn Rabah and their likes went to Syria. There remained with him in Madina men like ‘Uthman, ‘Ali, and ‘Abdu’r-Rahman, and those like Ubayy ibn Ka’b, Muhammad ibn Maslama, Zayd ibn Thabit, and others.

Ibn Taymiyya says:

Now the action of the people of Madina was either a sunna from the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم himself or they referred to the judgements of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab. It is said that Malik took the bulk of the Muwatta‘ from Rabī’a, and Rabī’a from Sa’īd ibn al-Musayyab, and Sa’īd ibn al-Musayyab from ‘Umar, and ‘Umar related it. Of ‘Umar’s weight, at-Tirmidhi has that the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “If I had not been sent among you, then ‘Umar would have been sent among you.”

In the two Sahīh collections (Bukhari and Muslim), the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “In the nations before you there were men who were inspired. If there is such a one among my community, it is ‘Umar.” In the Sunan, the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “Follow those who come after me: Abu Bakr and ‘Umar.”

‘Umar used to consult the great Companions, like ‘Uthman, ‘Ali, Talha, az-Zubayr, Sa’d, and ‘Abdu’r-Rahman. They were the people of consultation (shūra). This is why ash-Sha’bi said, “Look at the judgements that ‘Umar made. He used to consult.” It is known that on which ‘Umar gave judgement or fatwa and on which he consulted them is more predominant than the judgement or fatwa of Ibn Mas’ud or his like, may Allah be pleased with all of them.

In questions of the Deen, both in respect of the fundamental principles and the branches, ‘Umar used to follow the judgement of the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم and he used to consult ‘Ali and others of the people of consultation.

At this time and after it, all the Muslim cities followed the people of Madina. Ibn Mas’ud was the most knowledgeable of the Companions in Iraq at the time when the Fitna took place. He used to return to Madina to ask about judgements that he had made in Iraq and if he found that the practice in Madina was different, he would retract the judgement he had made.


Extracted from The ‘Amal of Madina.

Note: This article was edited for spelling and style in addition to a new title.

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