The Sacred Texts Of Islam

As we begin our study, we first turn to a brief introduction to the sacred texts of Islam. The purpose here is to acquaint the reader with the sacred texts of Islam in order to understand their places within the authority structure of Islam. Many of the references in this book will come from these various sacred texts.

The Quran

The first and most well known of Islam’s sacred books is the Quran. The Quran is the foundational holy book of Islam and was conveyed entirely by Muhammad, the founder and "prophet" of Islam. Quran literally means "recitation" or "reading" in Arabic. The Quran is comprised of 114 chapters called Surahs. Throughout this book, whenever a portion of the Quran is cited, following the citation it will say "Surah" followed by the chapter, verse and translation.

The Quran may somewhat be viewed as the Bible of Islam in that it is the primary holy book of Islam. The Quran however, is not the only source of sacred or even inspired traditions in Islam. While the Quran is the only text within Islam that is said to be the literal words of Allah, of equal importance to all Muslims, is what is called the Sunna.

The Sunna

"The Sunna" in Arabic literally means, "a clear or well trodden path". It refers to whatever Muhammad said, did, condoned, or condemned. It is the record of Muhammad’s sayings, customs, teachings, or the example that he left for all Muslims to follow. Muslims view Muhammad as being the perfect example for all human beings. This doctrine is spelled out quite clearly in the Quran:

If you love Allah, then follow me (Muhammad) -Sura 3:31 (Shakir)

Ye have indeed in the Apostle of Allah a beautiful pattern of (conduct) for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the Final Day. -Sura 33:21 (Yusuf Ali)

Whatever Muhammad did or said, therefore, becomes the basis from which to model all life and belief. What must be understood regarding the Sunna is that it is equally important to the Muslim as the Quran. This is because it is the Sunna that interprets the Quran. Without the Sunna, the Quran cannot be properly understood. In fact, many aspects and practices of the Islamic religion are not even mentioned in the Quran but are found only in the Sunna. So, it is both the Quran and the Sunna that together form the basis for the beliefs and practices of Muslims everywhere. 1 In this sense, both the Quran and the Sunna are believed to be inspired and authoritative.

Sources of the Sunna

The Sunna is mined primarily out of two different types of Islamic literature. The first and most important of the two types of traditions is what is called Hadith literature. Hadith literature is specifically the record of the sayings of Muhammad. Secondly, there is what is called Sirat or Sirah literature. Sirat literally means "biography." So the sirat-rasul is a biography of the "apostle" or "prophet" Muhammad. There are many ancient and modern biographies of Muhammad’s life. The most popular English translation of an ancient sirat is Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul, (The Life of Muhammad), translated by the noted orientalist, A. Guillaume. Besides these two types of literature there are also histories of Islam and commentaries on the Quran by early scholars called tafsir. When I speak of these various types of literature collectively in this book, I will simply use the general term, "Islamic traditions".

Hadith Literature

For the purpose of this study, the Hadith literature will probably be the most crucial of the various Islamic traditions to understand. This is because so much of Islamic belief and practice, particularly the Islamic beliefs about the end-times comes from the Hadith literature.

As mentioned above, a Hadith is a record of the sayings and deeds of Muhammad. According to Muslim scholars, during the lifetime of Muhammad and after he died, his followers began to orally relay their memories of all of the things that Muhammad said or did.

The Isnad And The Matn

Each Hadith consists of two parts; the isnad and the matn. At the beginning of any Hadith is the isnad, or the chain of transmission. The isnad is essentially the "he said, she said, he said" chain of people who relay a memory of something Muhammad said or did. In English an isnad might read like; "John said he overheard Mary say that Muhammad used to say such and such." To complicate this further for those unfamiliar with Islamic literature of course, all the names are in Arabic. Many of the names are therefore long and possibly compounded. So here is a real example of an isnad from a Hadith taken from Malik’s Muwatta:

Yahya related to me from Malik from Amr ibn Yahya al-Mazini from Abu’l-Hubab Said ibn Yasar that Abdullah ibn Umar said…2

Sometimes there will be however only one name listed in the isnad, which is usually an indicator that the person relating the Hadith was a direct companion or family member of Muhammad. An example might be:

Ayesha related that Muhammad (peace be upon him) said…

The other part of the Hadith is the actual text. It is the portion that records the sayings or deeds of Muhammad. This part of the Hadith is called the matn.

So every Hadith is composed of the isnad (chain of transmitters) and the matn (the sayings or actions of Muhammad). Throughout this book, in order to simplify things, we will generally quote the matn only. The isnad will be included with the references in the endnotes.


  1. There is however a very small Islamic cult that adheres only to the Quran as its source of religious belief and practice. They are known as "The Submitters".
  1. Malik’s Muwatta Book 9, Number 9.7.27

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