Scholarship in “Plain English”: Joseph Lowry on the Prophet as Lawgiver and Legal Authority

By Cem Tecimer

Abstract: Joseph Lowry elaborates on the prophetic authority of Muhammad as a lawgiver. While the Qur’ān remains the undisputed ultimate source for Muslims, Lowry draws attention to the Prophet’s exemplary behavior and especially his sayings, which have gained significant prominence in legal argumentation in Islam. As a consequence, the formal study of prophetic sayings came into existence as an endeavor to authenticate the sayings attributed to the Prophet by juxtaposing them with the Book and other sayings, as well as by trying to establish a sound chain of transmitters for each saying. Lowry then points out how prophetic sayings and prophetic authority in general remains a source of legitimacy among different schools of thought within the tradition.

Source: The Prophet as lawgiver and legal authority, in The Cambridge Companion to Muhammad 83-102 (Jonathan E. Brockopp, ed., 2010)


In this book chapter, Lowry discusses Prophetic authority in Islamic law with special attention to ḥadīth, generally defined as “the corpus of traditions from the Prophet…” (p. 83). Lowry notes that, while it has been used as one of God’s names, the sobriquet al-shāri‘ (i.e., lawgiver) has also been used to describe the Prophet, attesting to his elevated legal authority in Islamic law.

Yet, Lowry begins the essay by distinguishing the Qurʾān from the prophetic traditions: the former, even though transmitted via the Prophet, is believed to be of divine origin, is usually terse, and seldom touches upon legal topics [See his Reading the Qur’an as a Law Book Yale Law School Occasional Papers, Paper 13 (2015)]. Prophetic traditions, by contrast, directly come from the Prophet and are his own contributions and are relatively more concrete and detailed.

Lowry observes that, despite the Qurʾān’s scant and sporadic references to Muhammad as a lawgiver, Islamic tradition has generally evolved to regard the Prophet as a source of legislation. Muslim scholars tended to cite Qurʾānic texts to back their view (e.g. Q 48:17; Q 4:65) as well as the so-called Constitution of Medina, in which Muhammad negotiated for express reconciliatory powers with Muslims and non-Muslims alike as head of the new community.

But this elevation of Prophetic authority was both a blessing and curse for Islamic law. During the early years of the Abbasid Empire, the dynasty that came to power about a century and a quarter after the Prophet’s death, there were complaints that new prophetic traditions were being invented and back-projected onto the Prophet. Additionally, the earliest law book found to date, that of Mālik b. Anas from the late second/eighth century, privileged the customary way of living in Medina during the time of the Prophet and afterward, even as he cited ḥadīth. Lowry takes this as further evidence of the Prophetic tradition’s relatively unassuming importance to early Islamic thought.

Here, it is useful to note Lowry’s definitions for the specific terminology he employs throughout the chapter:

  • Sunna: the general prophetic tradition; sunna: individual exemplary instances of prophetic behavior;
  • ḥadīth: the Prophet’s sayings.

In opposition to Mālik’s view, scholars such as Shāfiʿī and Ibn Ḥanbal during the ninth and tenth centuries CE, emphasized ḥadīth’s centrality to Islamic law, as a source of divine authority. They sought to prove four main jurisprudential ideas: (1) the entire Sunna can be encapsulated in the ḥadīth; (2) the corpus of ḥadīth completes the Qurʾān as revelation; (3) legal authority is derived from revelation; and (4) revealed texts can be subjected to hermeneutical procedures for authenticity verification and interpretation. This last point gave birth to a whole legal doctrine of ḥadīth studies. In fact, the canonization of ḥadīths in the form of compendia (especially through six renowned ḥadīth books in the Sunnī tradition) soon followed their period.

The formal study of the ḥadīth at that time, by the tenth and eleventh centuries, involved (1) categorizing the transmitters of the sayings according to standards of reliability; (2) establishing chains of transmitters to verify the origins of a ḥadīth; and (3) examining the text of the ḥadīth sayings (to a lesser extent). Accordingly, various classifications of ḥadīth emerged: the firmly established, the downright fake, and those in between of uncertain authenticity.

In the same discussion, Lowry fast-forwards from the medieval period to cover the modern. This entire tradition of “pronounced textualist traditions,” in Lowry’s terminology, came to be utilized during the nineteenth century and the following periods by modernists (p. 96). Emphasis on ḥadīth was used to undermine madhhabs, Islam’s legal interpretive schools, which were by then popularly regarded as having gone astray and no longer serving their original purposes to help regulate society. During this period, it became commonplace for scholars and political activists to selectively use ḥadīth to suit their ends. Another trend was that ḥadīths were read as concrete sayings that the Prophet uttered surrounded by his own unique context, and they were to be decoupled from the Qurʾān in terms of applicability –the Qurʾān being regarded as a more general and widely applicable source.

Rejecting these modernist trends, some aimed to deemphasize the importance of prophetic authority. But its symbolic importance persists, as evidenced, for instance, by Article 1 of the 1992 Saudi Arabian Basic Law, stipulating that the country is based on the Qurʾān, immediately followed by “the Sunna of His Messenger” (p. 101).

Key terms:

  • Islamic law: how modernization in Islam was partly manifested in dars-i nizāmī – a school curriculum developed through the 18th century CE, which included subjects such as “Arabic grammar, logic, philosophy, mathematics, rhetoric, law, and theology” (p. 98).
  • Islamic constitutional law: how the idea of the Prophet as a legal authority has pervaded Islamic constitutions, as exemplified by the case of Saudi Arabia in its Basic Law, Article 1: “…Its constitution [dustūr] is the Book of God … and the Sunna of His Messenger…” (p. 101).
  • Qurʾān: defined as “the word of God but transmitted through Muhammad’s experience of revelation and first uttered by Muhammad” (p. 83); how the Qurʾān is limited to very few legal topics (p. 83); how the Qurʾān does not explicitly assign the Prophet a legal role (p. 83); how interpreters nevertheless understood his rasūl (messenger) role as one with legal authority based on some passages of the Qurʾān, including Q 48: 17 (“Those who obey God and His messenger…”) and Q 4:65 (“…they will not believe until they make you the judge [ḥatta yuḥakkimūka]…”) (p. 84); how the Qurʾān nevertheless draw boundaries between divine revelation and the Prophet, saying that Muhammad is not an oracle (kāhin), not a poet, nor possessed by the genie (p. 83).
  • Fiqh: how usūl al-fiqh (“the bases of the law”) tried to treat ḥadīths as one of the foundations of Islamic law and how a distinction between certain knowledge (‘ilm) and “merely probable knowledge” (zann) “of God’s rulings” (ahkām) (p. 95).
  • ḥadīth: defined as “the corpus of traditions from the Prophet, although it is divinely inspired, represents, Muhammad’s own, direct contribution to the material sources of Islamic law” (p. 83); how they are very detailed and “treat numerous areas of the law” (p. 83); how Mālik’s Muwatta’ was among the first books to include ḥadīth, but even so it put more emphasis on actual “Medinan practice” as legal authority (p. 86); how the idea of Prophetic ḥadīths was cemented mostly by Shāfi‘ī and Ibn Hanbal and how the former established four main principles for hadith studies (see supra summary para. 2) (p. 86); how Ibn Hanbil was a great ḥadīth collector and how he also issued legal opinions (masā’il) (p. 87); how, in very broad terms, divisions emerged based on each camp’s treatment of hadiths: ahl al-hadith (partisans of Hadith), ahl al-ra’y (partisans of human reasoning), and ahl al-kalām (rationalist theologians) (p. 88); how the 9th century, and the consequent increased attention given to books advanced ḥadīth studies (p. 88); how ḥadīth, compared to the Qurʾān, a highly literary text, provided for a more “responsive, human gateway into Islam” and thus might have played a role in converting non-Arab communities into Islam, evidenced by the fact that some of the most important ḥadīth scholars were non-Arab Muslims (pp. 88-89); how, on the other hand, ḥadīths were used to consolidate unity in an increasingly more diverse Muslim society, exemplified by the Abbasids reliance on the ḥadīth stipulating that “the acceptable rulers [are] from the Prophet’s family” (al-ridā min āl al-bayt) (p. 89); how 9th century CE (mid-3rd century AH) through 10th century CE (4th century AH) witnessed codification of most ḥadīths and production of 6 of the most important ḥadīth authorities to this day, and how all were categorized into subgenres: sahih (authentic), sunan (plural of sunna – “collection of sunnas expressed by hadith”), musnad (supported – meaning ḥadīth that have an “isnād” – a chain of transmitters), musannaf (“compilation” – categorizing ḥadīth by topic) (pp. 89-90); how in addition to ḥadīth, “non-Prophetic reports” called āthār were also, somewhat, collected (p. 90); the 2 most important collections are those by Bukhārī and Muslim (collectively called Sahīh) (p. 90); how the canonization of ḥadīths through these 6 collections has coincided with (and is “indeed partly constitutive of”) “the emergence of mature Sunnism” (p. 91); how 11th century CE (5th century AH) witnessed the emergence of formal ḥadīth studies in madrasas (“law colleges”), called ‘ilm al-hadīth (pp. 92-93); an early assessment of hadiths, rejecting some and approving others (jarh and ta‘dīl, respectively) based on an assessment of “individual transmitters, chains of transmitters, and the texts of individual ḥadīths themselves) (p. 93); how ḥadīths were divided into categories such as sahih (“sound”, “authentic”), hasan (“good”, “acceptable”), da‘īf (“weak”), shādhdh (those with unusual texts – matns), and mawdū (“forged”) (p. 94); how a study of ḥadīth transmitters emerged, manifesting itself in books about these persons, kutub al-rijāl (“books on men”) (p. 94); another classification (based on fiqh) distinguished mutawātir ḥadīths from akhbār āhād hadiths, the former denoting hadiths with multiple strong chains of transmission, the latter denoting only a single chain of transmission, with mashhūr (“well known”) as an intermediate category, and how another category called tawāttur ma‘nawī, a group of ḥadīths that were textually similar to their mutawātir counterparts and therefore elevated to their status came about (p. 96); how the 18th-20th centuries witnessed an era of modernization that used ḥadīths to undermine strict divisions between madhhabs, including denouncing taqlīd (submission to a jurist’s authority) and replacing it with independent legal reasoning, i.e., ijtihād (p. 96); how the Salafī tradition reinvigorated the use of hadiths as a way to understand the practice of the early Muslims (al-salaf al sālih) (p. 97); how Zaydī and Shī‘ī scholars selectively used Sunni ḥadīths (p. 97); how modernization, usually in political turmoil contexts, resulted in using ḥadīths to undermine authority, to wage jihad etc. (p. 99); modernist Ahl-i Qurʾān movement is a breakaway from the Ahl-i Hadith movement, the former advocates for a reading of the Qurʾān and rejection of ḥadīths that contravene it (p. 100); de-emphasis of ḥadīths: the idea that they were how Muhammad reacted in certain ways at a certain time and in a certain context, thus with little legal authority, as opposed to the Qurʾān whose message is universal and applicable at all times (p. 100).
  • Madhhab: how the Khārijīs, now only represented by the Ibādīs, also have their own ḥadīth tradition, and how it mostly overlaps with the Sunni tradition but diverges from it somewhat because they believe that some of Muhammad’s companions (whom the Sunni tradition reveres) were corrupt (p. 92); Hanbalī jurist Ibn Taymīya (p. 97); Zāhirī jurist Ibn Hazm (p. 97); ḥadīth as a means of critiquing the unpopular religious practices of Sūfism, used, for example, by Wahhābīs (p. 97); Mālikīs tendency, as opposed, normally, to Hanafism’s to exalt Muwatta’ over the Sahīhs (p. 97).
  • Muḥammad: al-shāri‘ (lawgiver) among his sobriquets, attesting to his legal authority (p. 83); how the Constitution of Medina gave Muhammad certain legal rights and responsibilities, including acting as an arbitrator (ḥakam) in some circumstances (p. 84).
  • Shī‘ī: how Shī‘ī ḥadīths could be said to have unified the Shī‘ī community through its reliance on the 12 imams, just like the Abbasids’ reliance on other ḥadīth (such as the one declaring that rulers are from the Prophet’s family) to unify their own community (p. 89); how Shī‘ī ḥadīth collections transmit the Prophet’s saying through an imam, and how it mostly is collections of sayings by the imams themselves (p. 91); how Shī‘ī scholars did not find transmitters of ḥadīths in the Sunni tradition to be reliable (because they denied the right to rule of some of the imams) and thus how Sunni ḥadīths are not altogether trustworthy in the Shī‘ī ḥadīth tradition (p. 92).
  • Sunnī: how the canonization of ḥadīths through these six collections has coincided with (and is “indeed partly constitutive of”) “the emergence of mature Sunnism” (p. 91).
  • Sunna: how Sunna (with a capital “s”) has come to denote “the totality of Muhammad’s normative practice) (p. 85, fn 6); whereas sunna (with a lowercase “s”) denotes a single instance of exemplary prophetic behavior (p. 85, fn 6); how an early Abbasid bureaucrat complained that “adherence to the Sunna” (luzūm al-sunna) was corrupted by “practices with no sunna behind them” (fa-yaj‘al mā laysa lahu sunna sunna) (p. 85).

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