Imam ibn al-Qayyim’s Method in Using the Sirah as a Source of Guidance
Understanding the means, by which, to derive life lessons and practical rulings from (Seerah) the Biography of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is no new or innovated endeavor. Hafidh Ibn al-Qayyim (ra) in Zaad al-Maad established a model for deriving fiqh from Seerah. In Zaad Hafidh Ibn al Qayyim engages in narration and textual criticism by referening to the Sciences of Usul al-Fiqh and the Sciences of Hadith to establish a justified understanding of Seerah.
According to the Scholars of Hadith (ra), Seerah is categorically part of Sunnah by definition and Sunnah as a general concept encompasses Seerah as a body of knowledge which teaches us about the Prophet Muhammad’s (obuh) practice and life. Upon analysis of the varying definitions of Sunnah in Islamic tradition the most comprehensive definition to be found for the term Sunnah is that of the Scholars’ of Hadith (ra). In their definition of Sunnah, Seerah and the physical features of the Prophet (obuh) as well as his character constitute Sunnah in addition to his words, action and those matters which the Companions practiced which he consented to. In practice, the verifying Scholars of Hadith subject Seerah as a body of knowledge to the principles of “narration criticism.” The same principles used to critically verify Seerah collection are employed in classifying hadith literature but generally are liberally applied in the Science of history.
In Zaad, Hafidh Ibn al Qayyim (ra), takes a critical approach to Seerah studies an approach much more exacting than that foundthe classic masterpiece Imam Ibn Hisham (ra) ”Seerah Ibn Hisham” which is based on the prototype seerah work of Imam Ibn Ishaq (r).
In reading tradition it is wise to consider the two approaches that scholars have employed in constructing texts: compilation and critical Research. In “compiling” a text scholars may employ critical editing techniques and may not. The opposite is true in the act of producing a “critical edition” of a text. In this approach information is critically examined and the level of authenticity of content and comprehension is established.
If we look to Hafidh Ibn al Qayyim (ra) we find that in Zaad he establishes the authenticity of narrations that constitute Seerah literature and this is a preliminary research stage, prior to engaging the fiqh of Seerah literature. A lack in expertise in the the Sciences of Hadith makes the possibility for comprehending what is authenticate an impossible task. What we learn from Imam Ibn al Qayyim (ra) is that as a matter of principle Seerah is subject to the procedure and methodological principles employed to authenticate hadith.
So, deriving rulings from Seerah without being sure of the authenticity of sources is a methodological error. Secondly, failure to draw upon the discipline of the Principles of Fiqh(Usul al-Fiqh) to establish an acceptable meaning of a text is an exercise of whim and baseless speculation. Interpretation without guidance of principled scholarship is rejected by the Scholars of Islam. The reason for this is that in an attempt to contextualize practice today one may contradict the general principles of Shar’iah through interpretation or deem a matter acceptable that is unacceptable or the opposite. This approach to Seerah is one based on whim and willed ignorance of the scale of judgment employed by Shar’iah. Likewise, reading Seerah in this light may cause one to misinterpret the Qur’an given that Seerah is a source of Qur’anic tafsir an improper comprehension of Seerah can open up far fetched understandings of the Qur’an as well as misinterpret the aims of acts as they unfolded in the time of the Prophet (pbuh).
In an attempt to understand how to apply Islam and to uncover new lessons of relevancy for life today many are turning to Seerah given that the fiqh tradition for the unintiated can be looked upon as awkward. Lacking in aptitude and know-how Islamic thinkers da’wah workers are focusing their energy on understanding Seerah as a source of revival. Unfortunately, any attempt to work out Islamic practice must be principled and Seerah is not excluded from this rubric. Without grounding in the Principles of fiqh and Hadith sciences deriving lessons and fiqh fromSeerah is a path to be confusion masked by the intention of revival.
Seerah like Hadith and Maqasid ash-Shar’iah is a body of knowledge which demands prerequisite studies in Islamic sciences. Anything short of approaching Seerah with the necessary tools is to venture on a path full of contradictions and may lead one to be in violation of the inner logic and specifics of Shar’iah. The claim to derive general principles from Seerah is a false claim when unguided by Islamic sciences. An example of how Seerah has been employed a source of revival but has yielded to a distorted understanding by the quasi-scholar is the attempt to hold the the current age in character and quality that that of the Meccan period.
In effect, this reading of Seerah is a corruption of practice for it ignores in total Islamic scholarship and dismisses the mechanisms of Shar’iah that facilitate the application of Islam in varying contexts and situations while keeping in mind general principles and specific evidences. This is done unfortunately in the name of being conscious and sensitive to context and situation, in the name of contextualizing Islam.
Contextual readings of Seerah that describe the current age as Meccan leads to practical legislative blunders by distorting the scales of action so that the methods for establishing Haram, Makruh, Mubah, Mandub and Halal are subjugated and dismissed in the name of understanding social context in light of the Seerah. The end result is that the whole superstructure of Shar’iah and Islamic sciences are undermined in the name of applying Shar’iah. This is done by way of creative interpretations of Seerah which are socially relevant and taken to be the principles of Shar’iah applied.