Faced with the overwhelming arguments in favor of the authority of Sunnah some people resort to another way of suspecting its credibility, that is, to suspect its historical authenticity.
According to them, the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (SAWS) though having a binding authority for all times to come, has not been preserved in a trustworthy manner. Unlike the Holy Quran, they say, there is no single book containing reliable reports about the Sunnah. There are too many works having a large number of traditions sometimes conflicting with each other. And those books, too, were compiled in the third century of Hijrah. So, we cannot place our trust in the reports which have not even been reduced to writing during the first three centuries.
This argument is based on a number of misstatements and misconceptions. As we shall see in this chapter, inshallah, it is totally wrong to claim that the traditions of the Sunnah have been compiled in the third century. But, before approaching this historical aspect of the Sunnah, let us examine the argument in its logical perspective.
This argument accepts that the Holy Prophet (SAWS) has a prophetic authority for all times to come, and that his obedience is mandatory for all Muslims of whatever age, but in the same breath it claims that the reports of the Sunnah being unreliable, we cannot carry out this obedience. Does it not logically conclude that Allah has enjoined upon us to obey the Messenger, but did not make this obedience practicable? The question is whether Allah Almighty may give us a positive command to do something which is beyond our ability and means. The answer is certainly “no”. The Holy Quran itself says,
“Allah does not task anybody except to his ability.” (2:285)
It cannot be envisaged that Allah will bind all the people with something which does not exist or cannot be ascertained. Accepted that, Allah has enjoined upon us to follow the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (SAWS), it certainly implies that the Sunnah is not undiscoverable. If Allah has made it obligatory to follow the Sunnah, He has certainly preserved it for us, in a reliable form.
The following aspect also merits consideration. Allah Almighty has given us a promise in the Holy Quran.
“Indeed we have revealed the Zikr, (i.e the Quran) and surely we will preserve it.” (15:9)
In this verse, Almighty Allah, has assured the preservation of the Holy Quran. This implies that the Quran will remain uninterpolated and that it shall always be transferred from one generation to the other in it’s real and original form, undistorted by any foreign clement. The question now is whether this divine protection is restricted only to the words of the Holy Quran or does it extend to its real meanings as well. If the prophetic explanation is necessary to understand the Holy Quran correctly, as proved in the first chapter then the preservation of the Quranic words alone cannot serve the purpose unless the prophetic explanations are also preserved. As quoted earlier, the Holy Book says,
“We have revealed to you the Zikr (the Quran) so that you may explain to the people what has been sent down for them.”
The word ‘Zikr’ has been used here for the Holy Quran as has been used in the verse 15:9 and it has been made clear that the “people” can only benefit from its guidance when they are led by the explanations of the Holy Prophet (SAWS).
Again the words “for the people” indicate (especially in the original Arabic context), that the Holy Prophet’s (SAWS) explanation is always needed by “everyone”.
Now, if everyone, in every age is in need of the prophetic explanation, without which they cannot fully benefit from the Holy Book, how would it be useful for them to preserve the Quranic text and leave its prophetic explanation at the mercy of distorters, extending to it no type of protection whatsoever?
Therefore, once the necessity of the prophetic explanations of the Holy Quran is accepted, it will be self-contradictory to claim that these explanations are unavailable today. It will amount to negating the divine wisdom, because it is in no way a wise policy to establish the necessity of the Sunnah on the one hand, and to make its discovery impossible on the other. Such a policy cannot be attributed to Allah, the All-Mighty, the All-Wise.
This deductive argument is, in my view, sufficient to establish that comprehending the “Sunnah” of the Holy Prophet (SAWS), which is necessary for the correct understanding of the divine guidance, shall as a whole, remain available in a reliable manner forever. All objections raised against the authenticity of the Sunnah as a whole, can be repudiated on this score alone. But in order to study the actual facts, we are giving here a brief account of the measures taken by the Ummah to preserve the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (SAWS). It will be a brief and an inductive study of the subject, for which comprehensive and voluminous books are available in Arabic and other languages. The only purpose is to highlight some basic facts which if studied objectively, are sufficient enough to support the deductive inference about the authenticity of the Sunnah.