Definitions

sunnah

sunna

[soon-uh]

Body of traditional social and legal custom and practice that constitutes proper observance of Islam. Early Muslims did not concur on what constituted sunna, because of the wide variety of pre-Islamic practices among converted peoples that had to be assimilated, reconciled, or abandoned. In the 8th century the sunna of Muhammad, as preserved in eyewitness records, was codified as the Hsubdotadīth by Abū aynAbd Allāh Shāfayn. Later Muslim scholars strengthened the authority of sunna by devising a system for attesting the authenticity of various practices claimed as descending from Muhammad. Seealso aynilm al-hsubdotadīth; isnād; Sharīaynah; tafsīr.

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Sunnah (سنة, plural سنن Sunan) literally means “trodden path,” and therefore, the sunnah of the prophet means “the way and the manners of the prophet”. Terminologically, the word ‘Sunnah’ in Sunni Islam means those religious achievements that were instituted by the Islamic prophet Muhammad during the 23 years of his ministry and which Muslims initially obtained through consensus of companions of Muhammad, and further through generation-to-generation transmission. According to some opinions, the sunnah in fact consists of those religious actions that were initiated by Abraham and were only revived by Muhammad.

The question of hadith (Arabic: حديث pl. أحاديث, "words and deeds of Muhammad") falling within the abode of the sunnah is a disputed one, and is highly dependent on the context. In the context of Islamic Law, Imam Malik and the Hanafi scholars assumed to have differentiated between the sunnah and the hadith. In some instances, for example, Imam Malik is supposed to have rejected hadiths that reached him because, according to him, they were against the 'established practice of the people of Medinah'. According to other opinions, sunnah constitutes of what Muhammad believed, implied or tacitly approved and was noted down by his companions in form of what is today known as hadith. In Shi'a Islam, the word 'Sunnah' means the deeds, sayings and approvals of Muhammad and the twelve Imams who Shi'a Muslims believe were chosen by Muhammad to lead the Ummah - the world muslim community.

In the context of biographical records of Muhammad, sunnah indeed often stands synonymous to hadith as most of the personality traits of Muhammad are known through descriptions about him, his sayings and his actions, after becoming a prophet at the age of forty.

Sunnah and Hadith

The Sunnah is the manner or deeds of Muhammad and validated by the consensus of companions of Muhammad (Sahaba) in Sunni Islam, and the way or deeds of Muhammad and the twelve Imams in Shi'a Islam, while Hadith is a collection of the narrations and approvals. The two words are sometimes taken to be interchangeable, referring to the Traditions, but difference lies depending on the context. Hadiths are classified according their status, in relation to their texts (matn) and their chain of transmitters (isnad). Scholars of Hadiths have studied the narrations from their context (matn) as well as from their transmitters (isnad) in order to establish the hadith and discriminate the false hood from the truth proper ones. These were influential in the development of early Muslim philosophy and modern scientific citation.

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. There is a tradition both of historical biography (Ilm ar-Rijal) of Muhammad and of validating hadith — isnad or “backing”.

Sunnah, on the other hand, is established through the practical examples and not via these texts in Islamic law, but mostly through the hadith texts as far as prophetic biography, traits and examples are concerned. For example, prayers, both individual and congregatory, were taught by Muhammad to his followers by practical example and since then have been transmitted generation-to-generation through practical learning. Their documentation in form of Hadith only happened later, but their actual learning and transmission has always been through practical means. On the other hand, many traits about Muhammad, such as his style, his habits, and his dealings with others, is known primarily through hadith.

Early Sunni scholars

Early Sunni scholars often considered the sunnah as being 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, for some scholars, 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. Classical Islam often equates the sunnah with the hadith.

Modern Sunni scholars

Modern Sunni scholars are 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) in Sunni Islam, and via Muhammad and the twelve Imams in Shi'a Islam.

Traditional view of Sunnah

Traditional Muslims however, believe that verses such as "So they routed them by Allah's leave and David slew Goliath; and Allah gave him the kingdom and wisdom, and taught him of that which he willeth. And if Allah had not repelled some men by others the earth would have been corrupted. But Allah is a Lord of Kindness to (His) creatures." (2:151) justify the Sunnah. Many of these sunnah had their roots coming from Abraham as it is mentioned in Quran, "Who is better in religion than he who surrendereth his purpose to Allah while doing good (to men) and followeth the tradition of Abraham, the upright? Allah (Himself) chose Abraham for friend" (4:125).

Had Muhammad's only role been to deliver the verses, the remaining parts of the verse: "purifying you, and teaching you the Book and the Wisdom..." would not have been there. The traditional view holds that the above verses imply that Muhammad's mission is to deliver the message as well as teaching the explanation of the Book (the Quran) and the Wisdom behind it to the people; it is not just to relate the verses of the Quran and leave.

In addition, the verse: "Verily in the messenger of Allah ye have a good example for him who looketh unto Allah and the Last Day, and remembereth Allah much." (33:21), further emphasizes that Muhammad's example is divinely inspired and to be followed by Muslims.

According to traditional Muslims, the point being emphasized in the verses quoted by the Quran alone argument is that Muhammad is not to be worshipped or deified and that his role is to deliver the Quran,with comprehensive explanation and guidelines on how to live in the Quran—guidelines which have been preserved in Sunnah.

See also

Further reading

Musa, Aisha Y. Hadith as Scripture: Discussions on the Authority of Prophetic Traditions in Islam, New York: Palgrave, 2008. ISBN 0230605354.

External links

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