9 — The Actions of the Prophet as a Form of Revelation
The Sunna is revelation like the Qurʾān
We have been talking about the language of revelation, but so far al‑Juwaynī has not actually said what revelation consists of. Like us, he has been presuming that revelation consists of the Qurʾān and the Prophet’s Sunna. These are always listed together at the head of any list of the “sources of law,” but al‑Juwaynī has not organized his treatise as a list of sources, so he has not even thought to mention that these are the two sources he has been analyzing. Later he will say explicitly that the saying of a Companion of the Prophet does not constitute revelation, and that will finally prove, indirectly, that what he means by revelation is only the Qurʾān and the Prophet’s Sunna.
It is noteworthy that he has not yet made any distinction between these two types of revelation. He has been analyzing the language of both simultaneously. The one time he did mention them explicitly was when he said that particularization can occur between any two texts, whether they be from the Qurʾān or the Sunna or both. In Chapter 10 he will imply that Qurʾān and Sunna can also abrogate each other, as long as the abrogating text has at least the same degree of epistemological certainty as the abrogated text. This confirms that he regards them as functionally equivalent sources of law, with the only difference between them being that much of the Sunna is known with less epistemological certainty.
The Qurʾān and Sunna have not always been seen as functionally equivalent types of revelation. Early in Islamic history some Khārijiyya and Muʿtazila argued that only the Qurʾān was an authoritative basis for law. Traditionalists argued that reports from earlier Muslims were also authoritative. Al‑Shāfiʿī (d. 820) narrowed this scriptural canon to include only the Qurʾān and reports from the Prophet himself; but he did not regard these two sources as equivalent. To his mind, all of the law was revealed at least implicitly in the Qurʾān, and the Sunna served only to clarify and elaborate upon that divine speech. Hence al‑Shāfiʿī allowed the Sunna to particularize the Qurʾān (which is a way of clarifying it), but he did not even consider the possibility that the Qurʾān might particularize the Sunna. He also did not allow either Qurʾān or Sunna to abrogate the other, since they were different kinds of revelation. Most later legal theorists, however, came to regard them as playing exactly the same role as sources of law, with the only difference being the degree of epistemological certainty with which they are known. Al‑Juwaynī, apparently, shares this later view. In fact, this may also have been how the earliest Muslims understood revelation: according to William Graham, no clear distinction was made among the earliest Muslims between the Qurʾānic and non-Qurʾānic parts of the Prophet’s words; it was all simply Prophetic revelation.
Notice, however, that what al‑Juwaynī takes to be revelation is the Prophet’s Sunna—his actual words and deeds—not the ḥadīth that report those words and deeds. Unlike the Qurʾān or the Bible, the Sunna is not a book or a scripture; it is a historical event. Information about that event is contained in thousands of ḥadīth which have been collected into books, but those books are not revealed scriptures. (Actually, they are a lot like the Gospels in the Bible, which report the words and deeds of Jesus; but al-Juwaynī does not consider the ḥadīth scriptures, and if he were to read the Gospels he would not consider them scripture either—he would count as revelation only the words and deeds of Jesus that they report.) Accordingly, it is the Prophet’s own words, not the ḥadīth, that al-Juwaynī has been talking about in his analysis of language. He will talk about ḥadīth later, not to interpret their language but to evaluate the chains of narrators through whom they are transmitted, as a way of determining which ḥadīth should trump which other ḥadīth in case of a conflict. For now he is analyzing the material of revelation that must be translated into statements of legal values, and that is to be equated not with the ḥadīth themselves but with the words of the Prophet that they quote, and the actions that they narrate.
Actions function almost like speech
That is why al-Juwaynī must insert this section on the Prophet’s actions. His analysis of language has already dealt with how to translate the Prophet’s words into statements of legal values; now he explains how to translate actions into statements of legal values. His treatment of them is much like his analysis of language. An action is not always a sign; but if it is assigned a meaning in some kind of sign system, then an action becomes a sign indicating that meaning. What al‑Juwaynī does in this section is to construct a special sign system that can be used to interpret the Prophet’s actions. He provides a kind of dictionary, if you will, not for actions in general—not for translating smiles into expressions of friendship or winks into expressions of conspiracy—but for translating only the Prophet’s actions into statements of legal values, just as he already constructed a sign system for translating the Prophet’s commands and general expressions. Just as he said an imperative verb indicates an obligation by default but can also indicate recommendation or permission, so he now says that the Prophet’s act of praying a certain way, or eating a certain kind of food, can indicate an obligation, a recommendation, or a permission, depending on whether the act is “a matter of piety and obedience” and on other available evidence. He also says that the Prophet’s silences and inactions (his acquiescence, meaning his failure to rebuke others for their words and actions) can be converted into Prophetic words and actions, which can themselves then be interpreted using the sign systems he has provided for interpreting Prophetic words and deeds.
One consequence of analyzing actions in the same way al‑Juwaynī analyzed speech is that actions too are reduced to timeless and contextless indicative statements of legal values. I suggested earlier that if legal theory treated revelation as a series of performative speech acts that occurred within particular contexts and divine-human relationships, and brought about new relationships and responsibilities, then the significance of revelation for today would have to be assessed very differently: it would have to take serious account of the historical context of revelation, and ask how God was seeking to transform relationships through his speech acts, and what those transformations might look like in a new historical context. But al‑Juwaynī chose to analyze the verbal parts of revelation as a timeless statement rather than as a historical event; and now we learn that he has also chosen to analyze historical events as timeless statements rather than as historical events. We might have expected that even if he tended to isolate speech from its historical context, he surely would still treat particular historical actions recorded in historical reports as rooted in their particular historical contexts. It is therefore stunningly significant that he does not. He is going to treat even the most concrete actions in the most specific times and places and circumstances as indicators of timeless legal values, without any discussion of how their context might affect their legal implications. Particular events from the seventh century become direct statements about what we should do today.
Al‑Juwaynī does not give nonverbal historical events quite the same legal force as verbal events, however. Rather than pick a default interpretation as he did for imperatives, he tells us that there is a disagreement among Shāfiʿī legal theorists about what legal value the Prophet’s actions imply, and he leaves us to choose which default we will select. We can side with the most traditionalist legal theorists, who tended to say that imitating the Prophet was obligatory; this is the answer implicitly adopted by many revivalist Muslims today who feel it is very important to imitate the Prophet as much as possible. Alternatively, we can side with those more cautious or moderate legal theorists who say imitating the Prophet is commendable but not obligatory. Or we can side with a surprisingly large group of legal theorists who argued for the Prophet’s actions what only al‑Bāqillānī and a few others were willing to say about his words: their legal implications cannot be determined from the actions themselves; some further evidence is always required before one can reach a judgment on whether imitating them is obligatory or merely recommended. Since al‑Juwaynī does not himself take sides in this debate, he is himself suspending judgment on the questions, and thus is tacitly favoring this last view. This is one way in which he allows the interpreter considerable discretion in interpreting the Prophet’s actions—even more than in interpreting the Prophet’s words. Perhaps he even leaves the door open here for historical context to be considered as a factor in interpretation, if the interpreter thinks that it constitutes relevant evidence.
We should also recall that al‑Juwaynī mitigated the legal significance of actions somewhat when he declared, in his section on general expressions, that only words can be general; actions cannot. This suggests that actions might be interpreted as particular historical events rather than as timeless blanket statements. It seems to imply, for example, that the Prophet’s decision to have an adulteress stoned cannot be translated directly into a statement that all adulteresses should be stoned—especially since the Qurʾān provides the lesser penalty of flogging. But when al‑Juwaynī says in this section that the Prophet’s acts of piety and obedience are not peculiar to him, but are obligatory (or at least recommended) for everyone, this gives his actions a kind of generality: no one else can ever stone that particular adulteress again, so it would be pointless to say that it is obligatory to stone her in particular. On this question, al‑Juwaynī surely sided with the vast majority of jurists in choosing stoning over flogging as the punishment for all free married adulterers, on the basis of this one act of the Prophet (and against the ruling recorded in the Qurʾān).
Even if al‑Juwaynī does not assign the Prophet’s actions a strong default legal value, and even if he says that actions cannot technically be considered to refer “generally” to whole classes of acts or things or people, his tendency to treat historical events as timeless blanket statements of legal values is starkly evident in the way he says that by default many of the Prophet’s actions (and even many actions of his contemporaries) have legal implications for everyone and for all time, unless specific evidence shows that they were peculiar to him (as was the case, for example, with his marriage to more than four wives at once, which scholars have regarded, citing Q 33:50, as a special dispensation for him alone).
This has not always been obvious to everyone. Even once Muslims came to agree almost unanimously that the Prophet’s Sunna constituted a revealed and binding source of law, there were a few (including al‑Ashʿarī and al‑Bāqillānī) who suggested that in and of themselves the Prophet’s words and deeds were not addressed to any persons or situations other than those present at the time; applying his Sunna to later generations and circumstances required additional evidence that it was intended to be so applied. In principle, this left the door open for considerable debate about what actions performed in seventh-century Arabia imply about today.
That view, however, was soon thoroughly overwhelmed by the view that the legal impact of the Prophet’s words and deeds was not limited to specific persons or situations to which they were originally directed, but rather should be applied generally to all persons and situations that fit the wording of the report. “What matters is the generality of expression, not the particularity of the occasion.”
The interpreter decides which actions are binding
The only limit al‑Juwaynī really puts on how broadly the Prophet’s actions apply to others is his distinction between actions the Prophet performed as a matter of “piety and obedience,” which must (or should) be imitated by all, and those performed for other reasons, the imitation of which is permissible but entirely optional. The former would include not only the Prophet’s acts of worship, but also the legal judgments he gave in disputes, and any other actions he took that fell within the purview of God’s law. The latter would include matters of personal taste, as well as practical matters such as his opinions on agricultural technique or military strategy.
What is intriguing about this distinction is that it does not really provide a criterion for deciding which of the Prophet’s actions must (or should) be imitated, and which it is merely permissible to imitate. Indeed, it is a question-begging criterion. If I want to know whether my food choices should be guided by the Prophet’s, I cannot simply ask whether food choices are matters of piety and obedience, because that depends on whether I consider food choices to be subject to Islamic law. In other words, in areas of life that I think should be regulated by Islamic law, I will interpret the Prophet’s actions as legally binding, and in areas of life that I think should be left up to personal choice, I will interpret the Prophet’s actions as “not matters of piety or obedience.” Modern revivalists, who consider every aspect of life down to the color of one’s clothes and the length of one’s facial hair to have religious significance, can legitimately appeal to al‑Juwaynī’s distinction to argue that all Muslim men should wear long white garments and have beards a hand’s breadth long, while those who think these should be matters of culture and personal taste will argue that the Prophet’s dress and facial hair were “not matters of piety and obedience.” At the same time, they will probably argue that agricultural technology is a purely practical and technical matter, so that modern innovations in those areas are perfectly acceptable. But if my concern for the environment leads me to view agricultural technology as having profound moral significance, then I could choose to revisit the reports about the Prophet’s agricultural advice, or about his military tactics or the like, and declare that they are indeed matters of “piety and obedience,” and therefore should be mined for contemporary applications.
The upshot of al‑Juwaynī’s distinction is that the interpreter gets to decide precisely which of the Prophet’s actions are legally binding, and which are not. This freedom of interpretation is restricted only in those few cases when the Prophet himself said that others should follow his example (e.g. when he said “pray as you see me praying”), and in those cases when other parts of revelation show that a particular action is governed by law and therefore must have been performed as a matter of obedience. The latter cases might be quite numerous, but those are precisely the cases that matter the least, because in those cases we already know the law from other evidence, so the Prophet’s actions add nothing except perhaps some additional details. For the most interesting questions—those not already settled by other evidence—the legal significance of the Prophet’s actions is determined by the interpreter’s preconceptions about what the law should and should not say.
Al‑Juwaynī himself, of course, had his own preconceptions about what parts of life the law governs, and those preconceptions were shaped by the legal and cultural traditions within which he lived and worked. Today, however, Muslims live in as wide an array of cultures as ever, and many of those cultures have been transformed by the encounter with modernity and the West, while the inherited presuppositions of the Islamic legal tradition no longer hold sway over Muslim legal and educational institutions to the extent they did in al‑Juwaynī’s time. His legal theory, therefore, leaves the question of how much of the Prophet’s behavior should be directly imitated open to a wide range of perspectives. Revivalists will find in legal theory strong support for their call to a return to many aspects of seventh-century Arabian life and culture—including not only the Prophet’s behavior but also that of his contemporaries, as long as he did not denounce them for it. At the other end of the spectrum, Muslim secularists, who would prefer that Islam govern only matters of personal devotion and ritual, can argue that even the Prophet’s criminal and civil judgments were matters of state policy rather than religious obedience, and hence need not be imitated today.
Conclusion: the reader’s presuppositions govern interpretation
The Prophet’s actions are just that: actions. They are not, in and of themselves, statements of legal values. What they mean for law depends on the sign system one constructs for interpreting them. Some modernists would attempt to find a translation system that would convert them into statements of universal moral principles, so that they can turn around and apply those principles in new ways that may look very different from the Prophet’s own actions. Al‑Juwaynī, however, has constructed a system that makes them directly translatable into timeless indicative statements of legal values, thus filtering out the contextual factors that may have motivated and shaped them. In that way he limits the interpreter’s ability to let his own context and values affect the conclusions that he draws from the Prophet’s actions for his own time and place. But al-Juwaynī does leave the interpreter great flexibility to decide which actions should and which should not be accorded legal significance, and how much legal force the significant ones should be given. This gives the reader’s presuppositions a decisive impact on the legal meaning of the Prophet’s nonverbal actions—just as al‑Juwaynī gave the interpreter considerable control over the meaning of the verbal parts of revelation.
On early views of the relationship between Qurʾān and Sunna, see William A. Graham, Divine Word and Prophetic Word in Early Islam: A Reconsideration of the Sources, with Special Reference to the Divine Saying or Ḥadīth Qudsī (The Hague: Mouton, 1977).
On the history of reception of Prophetic ḥadīth generally, see Aisha Y. Musa, Ḥadīth as Scripture: Discussions on the Authority of Prophetic Traditions in Islam (New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2008) and Jonathan A. C. Brown, Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009).