“But deliberate neglect or, as with some of the “modernists,” complete denial of the Sunnah is nothing but open contravention of the Holy Book.”  – Shah Shahidullah Faridi
From the traditionalist perspective, following the sunnah of the Prophet is an integral part of the faith and is commanded by the Quran itself. The charge levelled against quranists is of latent apostasy by way of rejecting Muhammad’s sunnah and authority via the renouncing of hadith literature. Rejecting the hadith is to reject the Prophetic sunnah is to reject the Quran is to reject Islam. This type of equivocation is achieved subtly and through levels of reasoning.
It is interesting that the quran never once mentions “sunnah of the Prophet”, but uses the word sunnah in many other instances. Perhaps even more interestingly, 33/38, 33/62, 35/43, 40/85 and 48/23 all refer to “Allah’s sunnah”. The argument for following the “sunnah of the Prophet” thus becomes a non-issue for quranists, given there is no explicit reference endorsing it as a valid source of guidance. That being said, no one claiming to be muslim, quranist or otherwise, would suggest rejecting the example of the Prophet as acceptable. The objection to the traditionalist position is the insistence that the example of the Prophet can only be found via hadith and one who rejects it has in turn rejected the Quran. The reality is the opposite: the only thing containing the example of the Prophet is the quran itself.
The Messenger was “uswatun hasanatun”
33/21 Certainly has been for you in the Messenger of Allah an excellent pattern/example [uswatun hasanatun] for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the Last Day and remembers Allah often.
If the Messenger was “uswatun hasanatun”, how do we witness this excellence and imitate accordingly?
The use of extra-quranic sources to demonstrate the Prophetic example is not exclusive to traditionalists. Some “hadith reformists” such as Dr. Ahmad Shafaat, attempt to use hadith which do not contradict quran to determine the Prophetic example. The use of hadith is to get a more focussed and arguably more contextualised account of the Prophetic way. At variance to this method, the late scholar Fazlur Rahman, suggested the Prophetic example could be followed via the lasting community practises found within Islamic culture. He argued that community conventions are far more resistant to change, compared to reports and narrations, and thus provide a reasonably reliable account of the Prophetic way.
The contention of the quranists is that the Prophetic example can actually be determined from within the quran itself, rendering all outside sources unnecessary. The Prophet was only given the quran and was bound by its teachings just like everyone else. His example is in fact enacting of quran. The following are verses from the quran which demonstrate the behaviour and characteristics of the Prophet:
He believed in God (9/61), was aware of Him (33/1) and God was sufficient for him (8/64). He would enjoin the good, forbid the evil and remove burdens from people (7/157). He forbid associating partners with God (3/80). He fought in the path of God with others and did not lose heart and was patient (3/146). He never embezzled or tricked anyone (3/161). He practised judgement and discretion regarding what should be known to who for the good of people (4/83). He judged with the revelation (5/44). He did not speak of things he knew nothing of (46/9). He both urged people to fight in the way of God (8/65) and showed compassion to those at his mercy (8/70). He trusted and forgave believers (9/61). He struggled against ingrates and hypocrites (9/73). He did not seek forgiveness for those who associated partners with God after guidance became clear for them (9/113). Would sujud and cry for God (19/58). He was close to the believers (33/6). He elucidated and gently compared the benefits of this world and the hereafter to those close to him (33/28-29). He gave good news and warned (33/45). Distributed blessings of God to those who were needy and did not allow hoarding of wealth amongst the rich (59/7). Accepted people’s allegiances based on their word (60/12). He taught The Book (62/2). Feared God, did not act against people unjustly and awaited full disclosure of an affair before acting (65/1).
It is clear from the above verses, and no doubt others that are equally applicable to the Prophet, that his example is found in quran. This refutes the claim that hadith literature is the keeper of the Prophetic example. Not only that, the quranist position goes even further and makes the example of all the Prophets relevant to the muslim, unlike the traditionalists who’s “prophetic sunnah” focusses almost solely on Muhammad.
Ibrahim was “uswatun hasanatun”
60/4 There has already been for you an excellent pattern/example [uswatun hasanatun] in Ibrahim and those with him […]
The quran uses the exact same phrase to describe the Messenger and Ibrahim. There are no hadith with a chain of transmission going back to Ibrahim, which means that traditionalists are left with the quran to uncover his example. It is interesting then, that the quran is sufficient as a source for Ibrahim’s example but not for Muhammad’s. Some of the actions and qualities of Ibrahim are evident in the following verses:
He had certainty in God (6/75) and sought assurances from Him (2/260). He would ask from God for good things for others (2/126) and argued for compassion for others (11/74). He enjoined his loved ones to die as muslims (2/132). Sought refuge in God from associating partners with Him (14/35). He challenged even his own kin regarding shirk and falsehood (6/74). He was truthful/sincere (19/41). He was kind, compassionate (9/114). He was a good host and welcoming (11/69). He challenged falsehood through parables and understood people’s limitations (2/258). He did not divide the deen (42/13). He stood up to his community for truth (43/26). He reflected on all signs of God to be closer to Him (6/76). Used reason and logic to guide people to truth (21/51-73). He sought forgiveness from God (60/5). Sought counsel from those who would be affected by his own actions (37/102).
Thus, “uswatun hasanatun” has been expanded by studying the actions of Ibrahim. Further to this, the quran contains examples of many other Prophets. The insistence of traditionalists that Muhammad was the greatest Prophet has no origin in quran. In fact, the complete opposite is evident through verses like 2/136 and 4/152 which tells us that the believer makes no distinction between them.
We make no distinction between any of them
4/152 But they who believe in Allah and His messengers and do not discriminate between any of them – to those He is going to give their rewards. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful.
Since there is no distinction between the Prophets, all their respective examples must be worthy of imitation, just like Muhammad and Ibrahim. The following are a sample of verses speaking of actions of some of the other Prophets of God:
Musa stood up to tyranny in the form of Firawn (7/103). He suspected people were insincere in their word, and sought assurances explicitly from them (2/246). He acknowledged his own act as evil when realization came to him (28/15) and recognised deviant people who can distort your morals (28/18). He fulfilled his obligations (28/29) and was determined in pursuit of goodness (18/60). He sought knowledge and development (18/66). He acknowledged his own forgetfulness and limitations (18/66). Aaron strengthened his brother by sharing the burden (20/31-32), he warned people of tests (20/90), feared causing division and acting without authority (20/94) and was eloquent in speech (28/34).
Idris was patient (21/85), Nuh continued on the right path despite ridicule (11/38), Hud asked people for no reward when inviting people to truth (11/51), Yacub was wary of the harms of jealousy and warned Yusuf of it (12/5). He also detected lies but dealt with them with patience (12/18). Yusuf refused temptations in favour of honour (12/23) and preferred isolation to sin (12/33). Even in incarceration he would give good counsel to companions (12/40-41). He was trustworthy and responsible (12/55). Shu’ayb was just (26/181-183). Dawud would praise God (27/15) and Sulaiman verified testimonies (27/27). Zachariya cried to God in secret (19/3) and cared for people who would come after him (19/5). Jesus was good to his mother (19/32) and sought helpers in the path of God (3/52).
The quran provides a comprehensive account of the actions of the Prophets, giving us a deep pool to draw upright examples from. The above verses, in tandem with every other verse that instructs us to righteousness, are the basis of how we become moral beings. Thus, the claim that the hadith literature is required to access the Prophetic example is not valid. The quran is the only source required. Through studying the quran it is evident that what made the Prophets special was how closely they were able to follow the revelation. Thus, obeying and implementing quran is the means to following their footsteps and being closer to God.
17/89 And We have certainly explained for mankind in this Qur’an from every example [mathalin], but refused most of mankind except in disbelief.