Explaining the Categories of Knowledge of the Prophet ﷺ

Explaining the Categories of Knowledge of the Prophet ﷺ

Shaikh Dr. Haroon Sidat

Given the vast canon of ḥadīth literature available to us, it is important, nay, imperative, that we situate statements of the Prophet ﷺ in their right context. To take a statement related to him without paying due regard to how it should be categorised and understood can result in manifest injustice to our rich intellectual tradition. Not only can it lead to unnecessary burden on the individual and society (which was never the intent as I have mentioned elsewhere) but it is implicitly being an accomplice in dishonouring the Prophet. [1] Over a number of articles I want to look at one way of approaching and applying the ḥadīth canon, inṣhā’Allah. [2]

What has been related to us from the Prophet ﷺ can be placed in two broad categories: that which is part of propagating the message i.e. directly related to our guidance; and that which is not. As for the first one, we find the statement of God, may He be exalted:

وَمَا آتَاكُمُ الرَّسُولُ فَخُذُوهُ وَمَا نَهَاكُمْ عَنْهُ فَانتَهُوا

And whatever the Prophet has given you, take; and what he has forbidden you, refrain from.[3]

This includes four things:

  1. Knowledge in relation to eschatological matters, i.e. life after death and the wonders of the Malākūt (the angelic realm). This is based solely on revelation.
  2. Divine laws, the way of worshipping God, may He be exalted, and how the support of civilisation is to be achieved. Part of this is based on revelation while the other part is based on independent reasoning (ijtihād) of the Prophet ﷺ. The latter in essence is part of revelation too since the Prophet ﷺ was safeguarded from ever falling into error. It is not necessary that his independent reasoning is based on the Qu’rān; God, may He be exalted, taught him the purpose behind the divine law, the principles of facilitation, and laws and rulings from which he would then reveal and explain accordingly to humankind.
  3. Practical wisdom and beneficial purposes that did not have a defined limit or specific time, such as his explanation of what is included good character and what is not. Since God, may He be exalted, informed him of only the principles, he derived its wisdom (ḥikma) and general principles through independent reasoning.
  4. The virtues of actions and the status of those who excel in good deeds. Part of this is based on revelation while the other part is based on independent reasoning.

As for the second one, i.e. that which is not part of propagating the message; rather it forms part of his personal opinions. In such matters, it is not compulsory to follow them. We find the following instance:

حَدَّثَنَا عَبْدُ اللَّهِ بْنُ الرُّومِيِّ الْيَمَامِيُّ، وَعَبَّاسُ بْنُ عَبْدِ الْعَظِيمِ الْعَنْبَرِيُّ، وَأَحْمَدُ بْنُ، جَعْفَرٍ الْمَعْقِرِيُّ قَالُوا حَدَّثَنَا النَّضْرُ بْنُ مُحَمَّدٍ، حَدَّثَنَا عِكْرِمَةُ، – وَهُوَ ابْنُ عَمَّارٍ – حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو النَّجَاشِيِّ، حَدَّثَنِي رَافِعُ بْنُ خَدِيجٍ، قَالَ قَدِمَ نَبِيُّ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم الْمَدِينَةَ وَهُمْ يَأْبُرُونَ النَّخْلَ يَقُولُونَ يُلَقِّحُونَ النَّخْلَ فَقَالَ ” مَا تَصْنَعُونَ ” . قَالُوا كُنَّا نَصْنَعُهُ قَالَ ” لَعَلَّكُمْ لَوْ لَمْ تَفْعَلُوا كَانَ خَيْرًا ” . فَتَرَكُوهُ فَنَفَضَتْ أَوْ فَنَقَصَتْ – قَالَ – فَذَكَرُوا ذَلِكَ لَهُ فَقَالَ ” إِنَّمَا أَنَا بَشَرٌ إِذَا أَمَرْتُكُمْ بِشَىْءٍ مِنْ دِينِكُمْ فَخُذُوا بِهِ وَإِذَا أَمَرْتُكُمْ بِشَىْءٍ مِنْ رَأْىٍ فَإِنَّمَا أَنَا بَشَرٌ

Rāfi’ bin Khadīj reported that Prophet ﷺ, came to Medina and the people had been grafting the trees. He said: What are you doing? They said: We are grafting them, whereupon he said: It may perhaps be good for you if you do not do that, so they abandoned this practice (and the date-palms) began to yield less fruit. They made a mention of it (to the Prophet ﷺ), whereupon he said: I am a human being, so when I command you about a thing pertaining to religion, do accept it, and when I command you about a thing out of my personal opinion, keep it in mind that I am a human being.[4]

Another instance in the case of pollinating the palms, has the following:

حَدَّثَنَا قُتَيْبَةُ بْنُ سَعِيدٍ الثَّقَفِيُّ، وَأَبُو كَامِلٍ الْجَحْدَرِيُّ – وَتَقَارَبَا فِي اللَّفْظِ وَهَذَا حَدِيثُ قُتَيْبَةَ – قَالاَ حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو عَوَانَةَ عَنْ سِمَاكٍ عَنْ مُوسَى بْنِ طَلْحَةَ عَنْ أَبِيهِ قَالَ مَرَرْتُ مَعَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم بِقَوْمٍ عَلَى رُءُوسِ النَّخْلِ فَقَالَ ” مَا يَصْنَعُ هَؤُلاَءِ ” . فَقَالُوا يُلَقِّحُونَهُ يَجْعَلُونَ الذَّكَرَ فِي الأُنْثَى فَيَلْقَحُ . فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ” مَا أَظُنُّ يُغْنِي ذَلِكَ شَيْئًا ” . قَالَ فَأُخْبِرُوا بِذَلِكَ فَتَرَكُوهُ فَأُخْبِرَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم بِذَلِكَ فَقَالَ ” إِنْ كَانَ يَنْفَعُهُمْ ذَلِكَ فَلْيَصْنَعُوهُ فَإِنِّي إِنَّمَا ظَنَنْتُ ظَنًّا فَلاَ تُؤَاخِذُونِي بِالظَّنِّ وَلَكِنْ إِذَا حَدَّثْتُكُمْ عَنِ اللَّهِ شَيْئًا فَخُذُوا بِهِ فَإِنِّي لَنْ أَكْذِبَ عَلَى اللَّهِ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ

Mūsa bin Talḥā reported: I and Allah’s Prophet ﷺ, happened to pass by people near the date-palm trees. He (the Prophet ﷺ) said: What are these people doing? They said: They are grafting, i.e. they combine the male with the female (tree) and thus they yield more fruit. Thereupon Allah’s Prophet ﷺ said: I do not find it to be of any use. The people were informed about it and they abandoned this practice. Allah’s Prophet ﷺ (was later) on informed (that the yield had dwindled), whereupon he said: If there is any use of it, then they should do it, for it was just a personal opinion of mine, and do not go after my personal opinion; but when I say to you anything on behalf of Allah, then do accept it, for I do not attribute lie to Allah, the Exalted and Glorious.

Tellingly, Imām Nāwawī, may Allah be pleased with him, placed this ḥadīth under the following chapter ‘the obligation to obey what he says with regard to matters of religion, but not what he says with regard to worldly matters.’

This category includes six things:

  1. Medicine, such as the Prophets ﷺ statement:

فِي الْحَبَّةِ السَّوْدَاءِ شِفَاءٌ مِنْ كُلِّ دَاءٍ إِلاَّ السَّامَ

There is healing in black cumin for all diseases except death. [5]

  1. Based on his own experience such as The Prophet ﷺ said in relation to the best horse for Jihād:

خَيْرُ الْخَيْلِ الأَدْهَمُ الأَقْرَحُ الْمُحَجَّلُ الأَرْثَمُ طَلْقُ الْيَدِ الْيُمْنَى فَإِنْ لَمْ يَكُنْ أَدْهَمَ فَكُمَيْتٌ عَلَى هَذِهِ الشِّيَةِ

‘…the black one with a white blaze on the forehead. [6]

  1. As part of his daily routine which was incidental, not as a form of worship. Such as eating on a mat made from leather, or a bowl from made wood or sleeping on palm leaves.
  2. His discussions and conversation as part of the culture he was inextricably intertwined with, such as the lengthy ḥadīth of Um Zara’ narrated by ‘Aiṣha, may God be pleased with her, narrating the story of eleven women who divulged about their husbands,[7] and the ḥadīth of Khurāfata, where the Prophet ﷺ talks about a storyteller from the age of ignorance who had been kidnapped by jinns only to return later and inform people of his experiences.[8] We observe that the Prophet ﷺ would talk about stories which were true though they had no practical religious significance. Contrary to the views of some religious zealots and those of meek understanding, the Prophet ﷺ intimately too part in the warp and woof, as it were, of daily life; he did not live a life detached from concerns of wider society. Zaid bin Thābit, may God be pleased with him, mentions a narration wherein there is a clear indication that the Prophet ﷺ would hold discussions just like anybody else:

دَخَلَ نَفَرٌ عَلَى زَيْدِ بْنِ ثَابِتٍ، فَقَالُوا لَهُ: حَدِّثْنَا أَحَادِيثَ رَسُولِ اللهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم، قَالَ: مَاذَا أُحَدِّثُكُمْ؟ كُنْتُ جَارَهُ فَكَانَ إِذَا نَزَلَ عَلَيْهِ الْوَحْيُ بَعَثَ إِلَيَّ فَكَتَبْتُهُ لَهُ، فَكُنَّا إِذَا ذَكَرْنَا الدُّنْيَا ذَكَرَهَا مَعَنَا، وَإِذَا ذَكَرْنَا الآخِرَةَ ذَكَرَهَا مَعَنَا، وَإِذَا ذَكَرْنَا الطَّعَامَ ذَكَرَهُ مَعَنَا، فَكُلُّ هَذَا أُحَدِّثُكُمْ عَنِ رَسُولِ اللهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم.

…What can I describe to you of ﷺthe Prophet (It is beyond my means to describe them). I was the neighbour of the Prophet ﷺ(Therefore he was mostly present and knew many facts. He was also a scribe of the revelation). When revelation was revealed to the Prophet ﷺ, he sent for me, I came and wrote it. (The Prophet always showed kindness, and made us feel at ease). Whatever we discussed, he discussed the same. If we discussed some worldly affairs, he also spoke of it. (It was not that he only spoke about the hereafter to us, and despised the talking of worldly affairs). When we spoke of the hereafter, he too spoke of the hereafter. When we began speaking of the hereafter, he described its events etc in detail). When we spoke of food, the Prophet ﷺ also spoke of it. (Its etiquette, benefits, tasty foods, foods that are harmful, etc. Elsewhere many such comments of the Prophet ﷺ are mentioned. i.e. ‘What a wonderful curry vinegar is’, ‘Use olive oil, it is from a blessed tree’. etc.). All this I am saying are facts on the Prophet. [9]

  1. Things that are mentioned which are specific to that time and not for the entire community. Such an instance may call for an order to be changed if an appropriate opinion was to be put forward. For example, after a long and grueling march, the Muslims arrived first at Badr. The Prophet ﷺ commanded his exhausted men to make camp. Al-Hubāb ibn al Mundhir asked the Prophet, ﷺ whether it was a command from God to camp here. The Prophet ﷺ said that it wasn’t a command from God but his own choice. Al-Hubāb sought permission from the Prophet ﷺ and suggested if they could move to another location and was granted permission immediately.[10] This can also include rules that have within them a specific beneficial purpose as in the case of ‘Umar, may God be pleased with, and his following of the ramal, the fast walking including vigorous movements of arms and legs during the ṭawāf, to display physical strength:

فِيمَ الرَّمَلاَنُ الْيَوْمَ وَالْكَشْفُ عَنِ الْمَنَاكِبِ، وَقَدْ أَطَّأَ اللَّهُ الإِسْلاَمَ وَنَفَى الْكُفْرَ وَأَهْلَهُ مَعَ ذَلِكَ لاَ نَدَعُ شَيْئًا كُنَّا نَفْعَلُهُ عَلَى عَهْدِ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم

What is the need of walking proudly (ramal) and moving the shoulders (while going around the Ka‘ba)? Allah has now strengthened Islam and obliterated disbelief and the infidels. In spite of that, we shall not forsake anything that we used to do during the time of the Prophet of Allah .[11]

This act of ramal, was instituted by the Prophet ﷺ due to a specific need at a moment in time. ‘Umar, may God be pleased with him, however, maintained this practice.

  1. Specific rulings and decrees.

Bearing such broad principles will assist in categorising prophetic statements in their right context while alleviating us from unnecessary hardship. The Prophet ﷺ and his entire corpus of the Sunnah is an antidote in any number of ways to the demands and confusion of the modern world. Let us refrain from becoming a means of further confusion.

And only Allah, the Exalted knows best.

[1] It is worth relaying a ḥadīth from Bukhārī wherein the Prophet ﷺ is reported to have said: ‘Convey from me even an verse (āyah) of the Qur’ān… ….but he who deliberately forges a lie against me let him have his abode in the Hell.’

[2] Most of my reflections and thoughts here are adapted from the work of the great work of the Delhi divine, Ṣhāh Walī Allah Dehlawi and his magnum opus, the Ḥujjat Allah al-Bāligha.

[3] Qur’ān 59:2

[4] Muslim.

[5] Muslim.

[6] Ibn Mājah.

[7] Bukhārī.

[8] Aḥmad and at-Tirmidhī.

[9] At-Tirmidhī.

[10] Al-Bidāyah wa al-Nihāyah.

[11] Abū Dāwūd.


After completing his traditional Darsi Nizami studies, Shaykh Haroon went on to complete a degree in Economics, Accounting and Finance where he achieved a first class. He was employed as a consultant and worked towards a Chartered Accountancy qualification.  He has a masters degree in education with a PGCE in Secondary Education. Shaykh Haroon has completed the prestigious Jameel PhD scholarship in Philosophy, Religion, and Theology where his area of interest is in the education, formation, and training of Muslim religious leadership in Britain. He is currently a Research Associate and scholar at the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK at Cardiff University, and serves as an imam in Blackburn. He has three daughters and enjoys reading and traveling.