The Arabic word Sunnah (سنة) means “way” or “custom”, and therefore, the sunnah of the prophet means “the way of the prophet”, or what is commonly known as Prophet’s traditions. Terminologically, the word ‘Sunnah’ means the deeds, sayings and approvals of Muhammad during the 23 years of his ministry, and this means that whatever he said, did, or approved during his ministry as a prophet and messenger of Allah is considered a sunnah, which Muslims are recommended to follow.
The Sunnah, therefore, is the second source of Islamic law after the Qur’an. The Qur’an is considered by Muslims as the only authentic revelation of Allah to humanity. The Qur’an, taken as the word of Allah incorporated in the book called ‘Mus-haf’, and the Sunnah, incorporated in many books (the most important of which are Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan An-Nasai, Sunan Attirmidhi, Sunan Ibn Majah, and Sunan Abu Daud) are considered divine directives for Muslims worldwide.
The Sunnah, as opposed to Hadith, is the way or deeds of Muhammad during his ministry, while Hadith is a collection of his narrations and approvals during the same period. The two words are interchangeable when referring to the Traditions of the Prophet, but actually there is a difference between the two. Hadiths are classified according their status, in relation to their texts (matn) and their chain of transmitters (isnad). Scholars of Hadiths have studied the Sunnah from their context (matn) as well as from their transmitters (isnad) in order to establish what is true and what is false from these hadiths.
Through research on the transmitters of Hadith (isnad), scholars of the science of Hadith came up with the system of knowing the different categories of Hadith, and how to evaluate the text (matn) in order to establish if the text is correct, good, weak, or false.
Sunnah in Islam is both the life of Muhammad (the sira) and his recorded and validated sayings (the hadith). These are together supposed to constitute a moral example for the Muslim to study, discuss, and emulate.
There is a tradition both of historical biography (Ilm ar-Rijal) of Muhammad and of validating hadith — isnah or “backing”. These were influential in the development of early Muslim philosophy and modern scientific citation.
Sunnah must be distincted from both fiqh, which are opinions of the classical jurists, and the Qur’an, which is revelation, not record. It is one of many terms in Islam which are difficult to translate out of Arabic without loss of meaning. History further complicates the translation since different assumptions about sunnah dominated Islam in past eras.
In early Islam, the Sunnah was often considered equivalent to the sira, as the hadith were poorly validated, and contemporary commentators on Muhammad’s life were better known. As the hadith came to be better documented, and the scholars who validated them gained in prestige, the sunnah came to be known mostly through the hadith, especially as variant or fictional biographies of Muhammad spread, in part from the Christian world, some of them very slanderous. Classical Islam often equates the sunnah with the hadith.
Modern Islam is beginning to examine both the sira and the hadith, with an eye to justifying modifications to the fiqh, or jurisprudence, which was largely drawn from past interpretations of both. The sunnah in one form or another would retain its central role in providing both a moral example (sira) and ethical guidance via Muhammad’s own social rules (hadith).
sira, hadith, fiqh, isnah, Ilm ar-Rijal
Last updated: 06-02-2005 13:48:10