Authority of Hadith and Incident of Pollination of Palm-Trees


Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani[1]


One of the arguments forwarded to limit the Prophetic authority manifested in hadith to strictly dogmatic and ritual affairs is the narration about pollination of palm trees. Mufti Taqi Usmani has responded to the argument by carefully analyzing the text of the various versions of the report. By highlighting the style of the Prophet’s (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) saying he has shown that the Prophet had only made a passing remark and not serious observation let alone a religious edict. What is binding on the ummah from his precedents and rulings is that which is based on revelation or ratified by it. Therefore, all the hadith reports that contain clear rulings have to be accepted even if they relate to so-called worldly affairs.

1. Introduction

A point of view often presented by some secular and westernized circles is that the authority of the Holy Prophet (ﷺ), is no doubt, established by the Holy Qur’an even for all the generations for all times to come. But the scope of this authority is limited only to the doctrinal affairs and matters of worship. The function of a prophet, according to them, is restricted to correct the doctrinal beliefs of the ummah and to teach them how to worship Allah. As far as the worldly affairs are concerned, they are not governed by the prophetic authority. These worldly affairs include, in their view, all the economic, social and political affairs which should be settled according to the expediency at each relevant time, and the Prophetic authority has no concern with them. Even if the Holy Prophet gives some directions in these fields, he does so in his private capacity, and not as a Messenger. So it is not necessary for the ummah to comply with such directions.

2. The Narration and its Context

The Arabs of Madina used to fecundate their palm-trees in order to make them more fruitful. This operation was called ta’bīr which is explained by E. W. Lane as below:

He fecundated a palm-tree by means of the spadix of the male tree, which is bruised or brayed, and sprinkled upon the spadix of the female; or by inserting a stalk of a raceme of the male tree into the spathe of the female, after shaking off the pollen of the former upon the spadix of the female.[2]

2.1 Wording of the narration

Keeping this in view, read the following tradition, as mentioned by Imam Muslim:

عن طلحة، قال: مررت مع رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم بقوم على رءوس النخل، فقال: «ما يصنع هؤلاء؟» فقالوا: يلقحونه، يجعلون الذكر في الأنثى فيلقح، فقال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: «ما أظن يغني ذلك شيئا» قال فأخبروا بذلك فتركوه، فأخبر رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم بذلك فقال: «إن كان ينفعهم ذلك فليصنعوه، فإني إنما ظننت ظنا، فلا تؤاخذوني بالظن، ولكن إذا حدثتكم عن الله شيئا، فخذوا به، فإني لن أكذب على الله عز وجل»

The Messenger of Allah and I passed by some people who were at the top of their date palms. He said: “What are these people doing?” They said: “They are pollinating them, putting the male with the female so that it will be pollinated.” The Messenger of Allah said: “I do not think that it is of any use.” (ma adhannu yughni dhālika shai‘ya) They were told about that, so they stopped doing it. The Messenger of Allah was told about that and he said: “If it benefits them, let them do it. I only expressed what I thought (fa inni innama dhanantu dhanna). Do not blame me for what I say based on my own thoughts, but if I narrate something to you from Allah, then follow it, for I will never tell lies about Allah, may He Glorified and Exalted is He.”[3]

According to the blessed companion Anas, the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) has also said on this occasion:

أنتم أعلم بأمر دنياكم

You know better about your worldly affairs.[4]

The words of this tradition, when looked at in its full context, would clearly reveal that the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) in this case did not deliver an absolute prohibition against the fecundation of the palm trees. There was no question of its being lawful or unlawful. What the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) did was neither a command, nor a legal or religious prohibition, nor a moral condemnation. It was not even a serious observation. It was only a remark passed by him by the way in the form of an instant and general guess, as he himself clarified later.

ما أظن يغني ذلك شيئا

I do not think (ma adhannu) it will be of any use.

In other version of the hadith the word ra’y (opinion) has been used.[5]

2.2 The statement was not imperative

Nobody can take this sentence as a legal or religious observation. That is why the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) did not address with it the persons involved in the operation, nor did he order to convey his message to them. It was through some other persons that they learned about the remark of the Holy Prophet (ﷺ).

Although the remark was not in the form of an imperative, but the blessed companions of the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) used to obey and follow him in everything, not only on the basis of his legal or religious authority, but also out of their profound love towards him. They, therefore, gave up the operation altogether. When the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) came to know about their having abstained from the operation on the basis of what he remarked, he clarified the position to avoid any misunderstanding.

The substance of this clarification is that only the absolute statements of the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) are binding, because they are given in his capacity of a prophet on behalf of Allah Almighty. As for a word spoken by him as a personal guess, and not as an absolute statement, it should be duly honoured, but it should not be taken as part of Sharī’ah.

2.3 Kinds of Prophetic teachings

There is a vast field in the day-to-day worldly affairs which is not occupied by the Sharī’ah,[6] where the people have been allowed to proceed according to their needs and expedience and on the basis of their knowledge and experience. What instruments should be used to fertilise a barren land? How the plants should be nourished? What weapons are more useful for the purpose of defence? What kinds of horses are more suitable to ride? What medicine is useful in a certain disease? The questions of this type relate to the field where the Sharī’ah has not supplied any particular answer. All these and similar other matters are left to the human curiosity which can solve these problems through its efforts.

Shah Wali Ullah Al-Dehlawi explains the different nature of reports from the Prophet (ﷺ):

Be informed that what was reported from the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, and recorded in the books of hadith falls under two categories.

The first category (of the Prophetic sciences) comprises those things which are a means for the propagation of the message and God’s, may He be exalted, saying applies to it: “What the Prophet gives you, take, and what he forbids, abstain from.” (Qur’an 59:7) These are: a) Knowledge about the next life and the wonders of Malakut, and all of this is based on revelation, b) The divine laws, and the determining of the acts of worship and the supports of civilization according to the ways of determination mentioned previously. Some of these depend on revelation, while others depend on independent reasoning (ijtihād). The independent reasoning of the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, is at the level of revelation, because God made him safeguarded from having his opinion settled on error …

The second category (of the Prophet’s sayings) comprises whatever does not come under the topic of propagating the message. Concerning this we have the Prophet’s saying, “I am only a man, and when I order you with something according to my own opinion, then I am only a human being,” and his saying in the story of pollinating the palms, “I only made a conjecture, so don’t blame me for that opinion, but if I tell you something about Allah, then accept (it) for I will never lie about God.” Included in this section is medicine, and also topics like the Prophet’s saying, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, “Be keen to acquire (as best for Jihad) a black horse; with a whitish blaze on its forehead,”  and this was based on experience. Included (in this) are what the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, did as part of his daily routine, not as religious practice.[7]

Moreover, it is the unoccupied field of mubāḥāt[8] about which the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) observed: “You know better about your worldly affairs.”

But it does not include those worldly affairs in which the Holy Qur’an or the sunnah have laid down some specific rules or given a positive command. That is why the Holy Prophet (ﷺ), while declaring the matter of the palm-trees to be in the unoccupied field, has simultaneously observed, “But if I narrate something to you from Allah, then follow it.” This includes even his ijtihād in legal matters. Shah Wali Ullah Al-Dehlawi writes:

The independent reasoning (ijtihād) of the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, is at the level of revelation, because Allah made him safeguarded from having his opinion settle on error. It is not required that his independent reasoning be inferred from revealed statements as has been thought , but rather in most cases Allah, may He be exalted, used to teach him the intentions behind the divine law and the principle of legislation, facilitation, and the rulings, then he explained the intentions that he learned through revelation according to this principle. [Also included in it is] practical wisdom and general beneficial purposes which he did not appoint for a specific time, nor did he set their limits; as when he explained good character and its opposite. These generally depend on individual reasoning (ijtihād) in the sense that Allah, may He be exalted, had informed him of the principles of the support of civilization from he then inferred an underlying reason (ḥikma) and made this a general principle.[9]

3. Conclusion

The upshot of the foregoing discussion is that the sunnah of the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) is the second source of Islamic law. Whatever the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) said or did in his capacity of a Messenger is binding on the ummah. This authority of the sunnah is based on the revelation he received from Allah. Hence, the obedience of the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) is another form of the obedience of Allah. This prophetic authority which is established through a large number of Qur’anic verses, cannot be curtailed, neither by limiting its tenure, nor by exempting the worldly affairs from its scope.


 References & Notes:

[1] This post is based on Mufti Usmani’s book “The Authority of Sunnah” interspersed with quotes he brought and comments he made in his multivolume Arabic commentary to Sahih Muslim. See, Usmani, Muhammad Taqi, The Authority of Sunnah, (Karachi: Idaratul Quran, 2004) 67, 70-74; Takmila Fath Al-Mulhim, (Beirut: Dar al-Ihya al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 2006) Vol.4, 515-517. The organization of contents here is by Waqar Akbar Cheema.

[2] Lane, Edward William, Arabic-English Lexicon, (Beirut: Librairie du Liban, 1968) Vol.1, 5

[3] Muslim bin Al-Hajjaj, Al-Sahih, Translated by Nasiruddin Al-Khattab, (Riyadh, Darussalam, 1997) Hadith 6126 (139-2360)

[4] ibid., Hadith 6128 (142-2362)

[5] ibid., Hadith 6127 (140-2362)

[6] See the note 8 below.

[7] Al-Dehlawi, Shah Wali Ullah, Hujjat Allah Al-Balighah – The Conclusive Argument from God,  Translated by Marcia K. Hermansen (Islamabad: Islamic Research Institute, 2003) 373-374

[8] The term mubāḥ refers to one of the five legal (shar’ī) norms of acts and may be translated as ‘neutral.’

“The neutral, it must be stressed, is a strictly legal category rather than an area in which the Shari’a failed, or did not care to regulate human acts. Put differently, categorizing an act as neutral is both a deliberate choice and a conscious commitment not to assign particular values to particular acts.” See, Hallaq, Shari’a, Theory, Practice, Transformations, (New Delhi, Cambridge University Press, 2009) 85

[9] Al-Dehlawi, Shah Wali Ullah, Hujjat Allah Al-Balighah – The Conclusive Argument from God, 373

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