Islam: Sources of Wisdom and Authority

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As discussed elsewhere, Islam is firmly within the broader Abrahamic tradition. This means that the answer to the question of the Source of Wisdom and Authority comes from the point where humanity and divinity meet. This can be diffuse or unitary, but there are usually specific reliable points in monotheistic theologies such as these where the believer can go for answers. In Islam, the ultimate source, and therefore that which all other sources rely upon for their legitimacy, is the Qur’an. It is here that we start our exploration of Sources of Wisdom and Authority in Islamic Theology.

The Qur’an

The name Qur’an is best translated in English as ‘Recitations’. The first thing the Angel Gabriel said to Muhammad was ‘Recite!’ which he subsequently did, after overcoming his fear. The Qur’an as a book, therefore, is the collection of the word of God as it was recited to Muhammad. The term for this given in the Qur’an is ‘Wahy’ which can be translated as inspiration, but in its strongest sense. Here the human is totally passive in the process, God speaks through the human with no input from the human. This is shown in the Islamic tradition through the insistance on Muhammad being illiterate and thus unable to have any part in the Qur’anic composition. When asked for evidence for their faith in terms of a miracle, equivalent to the many miraculous deeds attributed to Jesus, Muslims historically point to the impossibility of the Qur’an itself.

The act of reciting and listening to the words of the Qur’an thus holds symbolic power with Muslim communities as is reflects the origin of the words themselves. In fact the Qur’an was not preserved in writing until the danger of it being lost, due to the deaths of those originally intimate with Muhammad, became real. The process of collecting the Qur’an in writing began during the reign of the Caliph Uthman (644-656).

The recitations are broadly categorised into those from Muhammad’s time in Mecca before emigrating to what became Medina and those after the emigration while governing the Ummah in Medina. They are sub-grouped into Surahs that each focus on a single topic, theme, or story. As noted, the text is in many ways meant to be recited. As a result it can also be subdivided into thirty juz’ or subsections so it can be recited fully over the course of a month, as is done by many Muslims over Ramadan. It was memorized by the original Islamic community and it is a mark of pride for Muslims to memorize and be able to recite the text in its entirety.

The Qur’an is believed to be the Word of God. Muhammad is not its author, he is the messenger that delivered to Word to God’s people. The text is God speaking, in the first person, to Muhammad. As a result, the words of the Qur’an themselves are Holy. This makes the task of translating the text theologically complicated, because it can be argued that to read or listen to the text in anything other than the original Arabic is not really hearing the Word of God, but simple paraphrasing of the original.

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It should be noted that this does not mean that Muslims believe that God speaks Arabic normally. It means that as his revelation was to a person who spoke Arabic, so the revelation appeared in Arabic. Just as his revelation to previous prophets would have been in the languages that they understood. The Qur’an is not just in the language of the time, but also the style. The long poetic, rhyming verses are typical of the Poets of the region of Arabia between Mecca and Medina in the pre-Islamic era.

The purpose of God’s revelation in the Qur’an is to offer guidance for humanity to move back towards the path that was intended for them. The Qur’an uses lessons from History as signs of God’s work in rewarding the just and punishing the wicked. Ultimately the text outlines the right path and illuminates the choice that lies before humanity: submission to their purpose of living in a loving and harmonious existence with the rest of Creation or rebellion in the form of violence, hatred, and destruction.

The Qur’an, in this regard, is considered complete. It is argued that the Qur’an clarifies any confusion and obscurity in the revelations brought by previous prophets: The Torah of Moses and the Gospel of Jesus. The Qur’an is therefore to be the final revelation, and Muhammad the final prophet. 


Muhammad was born around the year 570 into a family of traders in the influential Quraysh tribe in Arabia. This tribe was influential because they controlled Meccah, home to the Ka’ba which was believed to house the many gods which were worshiped by the people of the region, and was thus a center of pilgrimage for the area. This put Muhammed on the fringes of the Meccan elite, a poor man connected to the city’s aristocracy through loose familial relations.

Muhammad’s father died before he was born and he was raised by his Grandfather and then his Uncle. He worked as a trader for a woman named Khadija. Khadija was twice widowed, a Christian, and employed Muhammad through the trading business that she owned. After working together, Muhammad and Khadija fell in love. When he was 25 and she was 40 he accepted her proposal for marriage. 

When Muhammad first started to receive revelations from the Angel Gabriel it was Khadija that comforted and encouraged him to follow the instructions given to him. It is not clear exactly why Muhammad first looked for the seclusion and peace of the mountains nearby his home. But it was one such retreat that, according to the tradition, he began receiving visions, recitations in Arabic that he was compelled to capture and share with the community. Over the next 23 years Muhammad continued to receive and preach revelations. 

The community of Muhammad’s followers grew, especially in poor and marginalized communities. This new community was persecuted and with the loss of Muhammad’s powerful protectors, his uncle Abu Talib and wife Khadija, enormous pressure was put on the fledgling community. Muhammad was offered to settle his community in the Oasis town of Yathrib and become their chief. Muhammad did and Yathrib grew in importance as a result, it is now known as Medina. This event is known as the Hijrah. The last ten years of his life, between the emigration in 622 and his death in 632, marked a shift as Muhammad constructed a society that was shaped by the revelations he continued to receive.

Conflict with different groups, including concerns in Mecca about Medina’s growing power, led to increasing conflict and later full-scale war between the newly established Ummah and the City of Mecca. Success for Muhammad and his followers brought a favourable treaty to the Muslim community, which by this time had grew in strength throughout the surrounding areas, and Muhammad reentered Mecca peacefully and proceeded to destroy the idols of gods in the Ka’ba. This action is seen in direct parallel to the actions of Abraham, who destroyed the idols worshiped in the city of Ur and set up the Ka’ba originally as a center of worship for the one God. In this way Muhammad was restoring Abraham’s legacy.

In 631, the year before he died, Muhammad returned to his hometown Mecca as what is now known as the first Hajj Pilgrimage. Upon his death he left a society that was shaped by theology and controlled a sizable amount of territory, which is now considered holy land to Muslims.

Muhammad is both the initiator and paragon of the Muslim community. In his life story Muslims see the ultimate example of what submission to God looks like. 

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Hadith and Sunna

Sunna is an Arabic term that is best translated into English as ‘custom’ or ‘way’. It is used to refer to the exemplary example given by Muhammad throughout his life, that Muslims are expected to emulate. In order to carry out this task, Islamic scholars put great effort into collecting written accounts of the sayings, actions, teachings, and customs of Muhammad in his daily life. Collectively these are referred to as The Hadith, which is Arabic for ‘speech’ or ‘report’.

Each hadith, singular, contains within it the source of the report on Muhammad. Naturally some a better sourced than others. As a result there has been much debate over the years as to which collection(s) of hadiths should be seen as authoritative. Sunni Muslims recognize Six Collections as ‘authentic’ or ‘authenticated’. Shi’a Muslims disagree on what count as authoritative hadiths, prioritising those that go back to one of the twelve Imams that they recognise, rather than back to Muhammad as Sunni scholars require.

The Hadith and the Sunnah together are taken as the basis for resolving questions in all aspects of Islamic life. Aside from the Qur’an itself, they are the basis for the legal and governmental systems, as well as ethical teachings, theology, science, and mysticism.


The term Shari’ah refers to the truth that was revealed through the prophets that are recognized by Muslims. This revelation, the Word of God, is the basis of justice, truth, and righteousness for humanity; it is in this context that it has come to mean ‘law’. It is God’s intended vision for human society.

Sunni jurists tend to agree upon four sources of Shari’ah Law: The Qur’an, the Sunna. Third, qiyas (analogy or precedent set by decisions on similar cases). Finally ijima’ (translation ‘convergence’, interpretation and consensus of expert jurists) Muhammed is quoted as saying that his community would never converge on an error This is perhaps the most interesting because it is where all the unsettled and complicated questions are. How different is this from a simple majority rule; Muslim Law is what Muslims say it is? How does that fit with the sovereignty of God and the Qur’an. 

Practitioners of Islamic law see themselves as standing in the tradition of institutions set up by Muhammad himself to govern the community in Medina. The concept of ijtihad is central here; it refers to Muhammad’s teaching that legal reasoning and logic should be the guiding factors on areas where both the Qur’an and the Sunna seem to be insufficient. Much Islamic legal scholarship has developed from this principle. Ijtihad allows for a great diversity of thought and opinion to flourish because certainty on any path cannot be guaranteed. Some Islamic jurists even embrace the plurality of opinions as evidence of God’s recognition of human diversity. It was the consensus among Islamic scholars that between the 10th and the 19th centuries the ‘door to Ijtihad’ was closed, as nothing new that is unsettled had arisen the need for new interpretation. There is still debate now over whether the doors are open or closed.

Islamic Law recognises whatever state that holds power as the authority of a territory. This means that although Shari’a Law comes from God, its enforcement ultimately rests with whatever human authority is capable of enforcing it. Judges (Qadis) perform their duty as delegates of the state authority.


Muhammad’s initial companions (Sahaba) and followers blended with his family. His cousin Ali, also his future Son-in-Law, and Abu-Bakr, his future Father-in-Law, were both know to take care in memorizing Muhammad’s revelations.

Upon Muhammad’s death, the Muslim community divided between those loyal to Abu-Bakr the new leader, those loyal to Ali who many thought Muhammad intended to succeed him, and those who didn’t recognise either as worthy successors to Muhammad.

Abu-Bakr led the community for two years before his death in 634, by which time he had united the entire Arabian peninsula. His successor, Umar, was decided by council. Umar was a senior companion to Muhammad. The conquests and conversions continued as the Persian Empire, and Byzantine Syria and Jerusalem fell under Muslim control in 636 and 637 respectively. 

Umar is known for his modesty and success as a leader; austere and just. Protections were offered to Jewish and Christian minorities, but there were still tensions. Umar was assassinated by non-Muslims in 644. He was succeeded by Uthman, a second cousin and Son-in-Law of Muhammad’s.

Uthman oversaw further increases in Muslim territory, which by this time stretched from Tunisia to Iran. However, he also oversaw increasing fractures in the community, including revolts and rebellions. These were partly in response to his policies, but partly because the society had become very diverse and home to rival factions. Uthman was assassinated by his rivals in 656.

Ali, who some, known as Shi’a, thought should have originally succeeded Muhammad, succeeded Uthman’s by now fractured empire. Ali’s primary threat was from the Mu’awiya faction. Their leader, Mu’awiya, was the son of one of Muhammad’s stanchest opponents; giving their conflict a personal dimension. Ali was unable to overcome his rivals and his assassination, in 661, marks the end of the era when the Islamic community was governed by the ‘rightly guided Caliphs’. 

Mu’awiya claimed the Caliphate and was succeeded by his son, setting up the Umayyad Dynasty. This dynasty ruled from 661 to 750 and at its greatest extent governed a territory that spread from Spain to Western China.

The Imam and the Scholar

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An Imam is a leader in Islam. In Shi’a Islam only twelve are recognised and they are all direct descendants of Muhammad through his daughter Fatima and her Husband Ali. All except the twelfth, Mahdi, who is a prophesied future leader of the community, who will establish the kingdom of God on earth at the end of time.

Authority in Islam, especially Sunni Islam, is decided by the community of Scholars. This is the significance of the concept of Ijima, as we have previously noted. Imans in this context are those who are present in the Muslim community for any Muslim who wants to know the consensus. They are likely to have their own interpretation of the community teachings, but generally they are supposed to act as mediators of the community interpretation to the individual. Thus their authority rests upon them being educated and part of the broader community and tradition of Islamic legal scholarship. But in reality they serve the community as leaders in the Mosque prayers and hold little special significance outside of this role.

This is slightly different in Shi’a Islam. Shi’a Imans are seen as successors to Muhammad’s house. In this way they share in the ‘prophethood’ of Muhammad, and represent him in the community. Imans, through the hereditary line of Ali, are seen to continue Muhammad’s legacy by inheritig his position. This places great power in the hands of the Imans because their word is final. While none would deny the Qur’an’s primacy in terms of revelation, more significance is given to each successive wave of Imans and how they interpret it. This also directly contributes to the fact that the Shi’a tradition within Islam is generally much more diffuse and subdivided. More power is given to each Iman, over time Imans pull the community in various directions, fracturing it.

The diversity in Islamic Theology is seen also in the practices. Even practices that are universal are diverse in their interpretation and expression. It is to this that we now turn to in our next page as we discuss Islamic Practices and Expressions.

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