إن الحمد لله نحمده ونستعينه و نستغفره ونتوكله إليه ، ونعوز بالله من شرور أنفسنا و سيئات أعمالنا ، من يهده الله فلا مضل له و من يضلل فلا هادي له ، وأشهد أن لا إله إلا الله وحده لا شريك له ، وأشهد أنّ محمد عبده و رسوله 

Indeed all praises are due to Allah, we praise Him, we seek His help, we ask for His forgiveness, and we rely solely on Him. We seek His refuge from the evil in our souls and from our wicked deeds. Whoever Allah guides, no one can misguide. And whomever Allah misguides, no one can guide. I bear witness that there is no one worthy of worship except Allah, He is One, with no partners, and I testify that Mohammad1 (ﷺ)  is His Messenger and His slave.  

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ اتَّقُواْ رَبَّكُمُ الَّذِي خَلَقَكُم مِّن نَّفْسٍ وَاحِدَةٍ وَخَلَقَ مِنْهَا زَوْجَهَا وَبَثَّ مِنْهُمَا رِجَالاً كَثِيرًا وَنِسَاء وَاتَّقُواْ اللّهَ الَّذِي تَسَاءلُونَ بِهِ وَالأَرْحَامَ إِنَّ اللّهَ كَانَ عَلَيْكُمْ رَقِيبًا 

“O mankind, fear your Lord, who created you from one soul and created from it its mate and dispersed from both of them many men and women. And fear Allah, through whom you ask one another, and the wombs. Indeed Allah is ever, over you, an Observer”2

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اتَّقُوا اللَّهَ وَقُولُوا قَوْلًا سَدِيدًا - يُصْلِحْ لَكُمْ أَعْمَالَكُمْ وَيَغْفِرْ لَكُمْ ذُنُوبَكُمْ وَمَن يُطِعْ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ فَقَدْ فَازَ فَوْزًا عَظِيمًا 

“O People fear Allah, as he should be feared, and always speak the truth. He will direct you to righteous deeds and He will forgive you for your sins. And whoever obeys Allah and His Messenger has indeed achieved a great achievement.”3   

The Prophet (ﷺ) said: فإن خير الحديث كتاب الله وخير الهدى هدى ‏ ‏محمد ‏ ‏وشر الأمور ‏ ‏محدثاتها ‏ ‏وكل بدعة ضلالة - "The best speech is the Book of Allah and the best guidance and example is that of Muhammad (ﷺ). - And the worst of all things are the newly invented things (in religion), for every innovation is error and misguidance."4  and in another narration, فَإِنَّ كُلَّ مُحْدَثَةٍ بِدْعَةٌ وَكُلَّ بِدْعَةٍ ضَلَالَة "every newly invented matter (in religion) is a bid'ah and every bid'ah is a dalaalah (ضَلَالَة - misguidance) and every dalaalah is in the (hell) Fire."5

In another warning the Prophet (ﷺ) said: ‏ ‏من أحدث في أمرنا هذا ما ليس فيه فهو رد - "Whoever introduces into this affair of ours something that we have not commanded, it is to be rejected."6 The Prophet (ﷺ) said: مَنْ عَمِلَ عَمَلًا لَيْسَ عَلَيْهِ أَمْرُنَا فَهُوَ رَد – “Whoever commits an act that does not conform with our matter (religion), then it will be rejected of him” 7

 Hence, Allah (swt) said: قُلْ إِن كُنتُمْ تُحِبُّونَ اللَّهَ فَاتَّبِعُونِى يُحْبِبْكُمُ اللَّهُ - Say (O Muhammad to mankind): "If you (really) love Allah, then follow me, Allah will love you...''8.

 Allah (swt) further said: إِنَّ الدِّينَ عِندَ اللَّهِ الإِسْلَـمُ – “The true religion with Allah is Islam”9. And then further explained it by saying: وَمَن يَبْتَغِ غَيْرَ الإِسْلاَمِ دِينًا فَلَن يُقْبَلَ مِنْهُ وَهُوَ فِي الآخِرَةِ مِنَ الْخَاسِرِينَ ُ – “And whoever desires other than Islam as religion – never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers”10.

 Thus, the Prophet (ﷺ) and His followers submitted to this deen, and Allah (swt) commanded: فَقُلْ أَسْلَمْتُ وَجْهِىَ للَّهِ وَمَنِ اتَّبَعَنِ – “Say: "I have submitted myself to Allah (in Islam), and (so have) those who follow me''” 11

 Hence, Allah (swt) declared: كُنتُمْ خَيْرَ أُمَّةٍ أُخْرِجَتْ لِلنَّاسِ - “You are now the best people brought forth for (the guidance and reform of) mankind”12.

 Allah (swt) said: تَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَتَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنْكَرِ – “You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah”13 . The Prophet (ﷺ) said: "He among you who witnesses an evil, let him change it with his hand, if he cannot do that, then by his tongue, if he cannot do even that, then with his heart, and this is the weakest faith."14. And Allah (swt) said: وَتَعَاوَنُوا عَلَى الْبِرِّ وَالتَّقْوَى وَلا تَعَاوَنُوا عَلَى الإثْمِ وَالْعُدْوَانِ – “…And cooperate in righteousness and piety, but do not cooperate in sin and aggression…” 15

 And the Prophet (ﷺ) said: من كذب على متعمدا فليتبوا مقعده من النار - “Whoever intentionally lie on me he should find his place in hell fire”16. And Allah (swt) said: فَمَنْ أَظْلَمُ مِمَّنِ افْتَرَى عَلَى اللّهِ كَذِبًا أَوْ كَذَّبَ بِآيَاتِهِ إِنَّهُ لاَ يُفْلِحُ الْمُجْرِمُونَ – “So who is more unjust than he who invents a lie about Allah or denies His signs? Indeed, the criminals will not succeed”17

 And the Prophet (ﷺ) said: يحمل هذا العلم من كل خلف عدوله، ينفون عنه تحريف الغالين، وانتحالَ المبطلين، وتأويلَ الجاهلين - “This knowledge will be carried by the trustworthy ones of every generation – they will expel from it the alterations made by those going beyond bounds, the false claims of the liars, and the false interpretations of the ignorant”18.

 Thus Allah (swt) strongly commanded us not to alter it. فَأَقِمْ وَجْهَكَ لِلدِّينِ حَنِيفًا فِطْرَةَ اللَّهِ الَّتِي فَطَرَ النَّاسَ عَلَيْهَا لَا تَبْدِيلَ لِخَلْقِ اللَّهِ ذَلِكَ الدِّينُ الْقَيِّمُ وَلَكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ - “ So set you (O Muhammad) your face towards the religion of pure Islamic Monotheism Hanifa (worship none but Allah Alone) Allahs Fitrah (i.e. Allahs Islamic Monotheism), with which He has created mankind. No change let there be in Khalqillah (i.e. the Religion of Allah Islamic Monotheism), that is the straight religion, but most of men know not.” 19

 When Allah (swt) gave prophet hood to Musa (as) and asked him to invite mankind to Tawheed and way of Allah (swt), he prayed to Allah (swt):

 قَالَ رَبِّ اشْرَحْ لِي صَدْرِي، وَيَسِّرْ لِي أَمْرِي، وَاحْلُلْ عُقْدَةً مِّن لِّسَانِي، يَفْقَهُوا قَوْلِي

20:25 [Moses] said, "My Lord, expand for me my breast [with assurance]. 20:26 And ease for me my task. 20:27 And untie the knot from my tongue. 20:28 That they may understand my speech 

 And we ask Allah (swt) to grand us same. Amen.

و صلي الله على سيدنا محمد و على آله و آصحابه و سلم - أما بعد : 


The paper is divided into six parts:

  1. Part 1 - Understanding Sunnah (فهم السنة النبوية): Legislative Authority of sunnah (1)
    • Introduction to the need of understanding authority of sunnah. Explain “sunnah” and how the term is used by scholars in various subjects of Islamic Shariah. Understand hadith and various basic terms associated with hadith. And briefly discuss relationship between sunnah and hadith.
  2. Part 2 – Importance of Sunnah (أهمية السنة النبوية في حياة المسلمين): Legislative Authority of Sunnah (2)
    • What is the importance of sunnah in the lives of Muslims. Explain why sunnah is important, and what does the Quran, the Prophet, his companions, and scholars think of sunnah. Why is sunnah needed, and its place in revelation from Allah (swt). Understand virtues of following sunnah, and respecting sunnah.
  3. Part 3 – Legislative Authority of Sunnah (الأدلة الشّرعية على حجيّة السنّة النبوية): Legislative Authority of Sunnah (3)
    • Legal evidences to support authority of sunnah. What is the realm of authority of sunnah? Understand the role of the Messenger and his authority. How sunnah explains Quran with detailed examples of verses and associated hadiths. Understand how scholars of Usool-Fiqh (أصول الفقه, Legal theory) apply sunnah in defining legislative framework. What is legal sunnah and non-legal sunnah? What is the stand of different scholars on hadith ahad? What takes precedence, Quran or sunnah? Is sunnah bound by Quran or it can provide Ahkam (jurisdiction/law) on its own? Does the scholars really disagree in substance in following sunnah?
  4. Part 4 – Preservation of Sunnah (مراحل تدوين السنة النبوية):  Legislative Authority of Sunnah (4)
    • The stages of recording and verification of the Prophet’s sunnah.
  5. Part 5 – Defense of Sunnah (دفاع عن السنة ورد شبه المستشرقين والكتاب المعاصرين): Legislative Authority of Sunnah (5)
    • Defense of sunnah and response to doubts of orientalists and modern writers.

LEGISLATIVE AUTHORITY OF SUNNAH

PART I. UNDERSTANDING SUNNAH (فهم السنة النبوية)

Allah (swt) said in the Quran,

قُلْ أَطِيعُوا اللَّـهَ وَالرَّسُولَ ۖ فَإِن تَوَلَّوْا فَإِنَّ اللَّـهَ لَا يُحِبُّ الْكَافِرِينَ
Say, "Obey Allah and the Messenger." But if they turn away - then indeed, Allah does not like the disbelievers. (Quran 3:32)
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا أَطِيعُوا اللَّـهَ وَأَطِيعُوا الرَّسُولَ وَأُولِي الْأَمْرِ مِنكُمْ ۖ فَإِن تَنَازَعْتُمْ فِي شَيْءٍ فَرُدُّوهُ إِلَى اللَّـهِ وَالرَّسُولِ إِن كُنتُمْ تُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللَّـهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ خَيْرٌ وَأَحْسَنُ تَأْوِيلًا
O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result. (Quran 4:59)
وَمَا آتَاكُمُ الرَّسُولُ فَخُذُوهُ وَمَا نَهَاكُمْ عَنْهُ فَانتَهُوا ۚ وَاتَّقُوا اللَّـهَ ۖ إِنَّ اللَّـهَ شَدِيدُ الْعِقَابِ
And whatever the Messenger has given you - take; and what he has forbidden you - refrain from. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is severe in penalty. (Quran: 59:7)

Islam is the Deen that Allah (swt) sent to us through His Messengers, from the first Prophet Adam, to Noah, Moses, Jesus, Mohammad and thousands others (may Allah be pleased with them all). These messengers came in their time and delivered Allah’s message to their people, to guide them away from darkness toward righteousness. Prophet Mohammad (ﷺ) was the last of the chain of messengers, with whom Allah (swt) descended his last Book, the Quran; to give guidance to mankind through His shariah (شريعة, path)20 till the end of times. Hence, the reference point of all Islamic studies will always be the Book of Allah, His Prophet Mohammad (ﷺ) and his sunnah (Prophet’s way). These will always be the basis and foundation of Islam and Shariah. They are the primary sources of understanding Islam.

Allah (swt) appointed Mohammad (ﷺ) as His last messenger and descended the Quran as His last book, and bounded the people until the end of times -- that He has send his last Messenger so (we) obey Him. That obeying His Messenger is obeying Allah (swt). And whoever disobeys and opposes His Messenger then he indeed disobeyed Allah (swt), and should await His justice and punishment in afterlife.

Allah (swt) has given the Messenger (ﷺ) a permanent authority, manifested in His message. To believe in Messengers (إيمان بالرسول) is,

  • To believe that he is the Messenger of Allah
  • Testify in the Message he brought
  • Obey the command and instructions of His Messenger
  • and transform your life according to his teachings and his way (his sunnah).

In the Quran, Allah (swt) has mentioned obedience to Messenger with the obedience to Allah. قُلْ أَطِيعُوا اللَّـهَ وَالرَّسُولَ ۖ - Say, "Obey Allah and the Messenger." Quran 3:32. And mentioned ۖ فَإِن تَنَازَعْتُمْ فِي شَيْءٍ فَرُدُّوهُ إِلَى اللَّـهِ وَالرَّسُولِ- And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, Quran 4:49. Here referring towards Allah and Messenger clearly means referring to the Quran and the sunnah of the Prophet (ﷺ). And Allah (swt) presented the Messenger (ﷺ) as an excellent example for all to follow. لَّقَدْ كَانَ لَكُمْ فِي رَسُولِ اللَّـهِ أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ لِّمَن كَانَ يَرْجُو اللَّـهَ وَالْيَوْمَ الْآخِرَ – “Indeed in the Messenger of Allah (Mohammad) you have a good example to follow for him who hopes in (the Meeting with) Allah and the Last Day” Quran 33:21.

Hence, if one claims they are obeying the Messenger of Allah by ‘only’ following Quran while rejecting his way (his sunnah), then they are certainly misrepresenting Islam, as evident from verses above. For instance, there are many provisions in the Quran that doesn’t provide us details, as to how to fulfill them. In here, the Prophet explains us the Quran and provide us those details. For instance, Quran states: وَأَقِيمُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَآتُوا الزَّكَاةَ – “And establish prayer and give zakah” Quran 2:43. The detail instructions regarding how to perform prayers comes from the Prophet (ﷺ), who explained how many rakats (ركعات¸ units) needs to be performed per prayers, and how to perform them properly as taught to him by angel Gabriel (as). The Prophet (ﷺ) explained us that we need 2 obligatory rakats in Fajr (dawn) prayer, 4 in zuhr (noon) prayers, 4 rakats in asr (afternoon) prayer, 3 rakats in maghrib (subset) prayers, and 4 rakats in ishra (night) prayers. None of these details were provided in Quran. Rather, the Prophet (ﷺ) was given this responsibility and authority to teach it to people.

Allah (swt) has mentioned that many times in the Quran, that the Messenger (ﷺ) is appointed to explain it to the people:

بِالْبَيِّنَاتِ وَالزُّبُرِ ۗ وَأَنزَلْنَا إِلَيْكَ الذِّكْرَ لِتُبَيِّنَ لِلنَّاسِ مَا نُزِّلَ إِلَيْهِمْ وَلَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ
[We sent them] with clear proofs and written ordinances. And We revealed to you the message that you may make clear to the people what was sent down to them and that they might give thought. Quran 16:44
وَمَا أَنزَلْنَا عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ إِلَّا لِتُبَيِّنَ لَهُمُ الَّذِي اخْتَلَفُوا فِيهِ ۙ وَهُدًى وَرَحْمَةً لِّقَوْمٍ يُؤْمِنُونَ
And We have not revealed to you the Book, [O Muhammad], except for you to make clear to them that wherein they have differed and as guidance and mercy for a people who believe.
كَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا فِيكُمْ رَسُولًا مِّنكُمْ يَتْلُو عَلَيْكُمْ آيَاتِنَا وَيُزَكِّيكُمْ وَيُعَلِّمُكُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَيُعَلِّمُكُم مَّا لَمْ تَكُونُوا تَعْلَمُونَ
Similarly (to complete My Blessings on you) We have sent among you a Messenger (Muhammad) of your own, reciting to you Our Verses (the Quran) and sanctifying you, and teaching you the Book (the Quran) and the Hikmah (i.e. sunnah, Islamic laws and Fiqh - jurisprudence), and teaching you that which you used not to know. Quran 2:151.

These verses clearly explain that without the help of sunnah, understanding the exegesis of Quran is impractical and will result in incorrect understanding.

During the time of Prophet (ﷺ), whenever Allah (swt) sends commands, the Prophet (ﷺ) explained it to his companions (صحابة). These commands came in the form of verses of Quran, or through other guidance. Allah (swt) made is clear in the Quran that the prophet (ﷺ) doesn’t pass down any commands out of his own, except that it comes from Allah (swt). مَا ضَلَّ صَاحِبُكُمْ وَمَا غَوَىٰ ﴿٢﴾ وَمَا يَنطِقُ عَنِ الْهَوَىٰ ﴿٣ - “Your companion [Muhammad] has not strayed, nor has he erred, Nor does he speak from [his own] inclination.” Quran 53:2-3.

People will come to the Prophet (ﷺ), and he will explain and resolve their issues. The campions will note down the detailed instructions from the Prophet (ﷺ), and will remember it. Some of them wrote it down, other memorized it. In their daily lives, they always referred to the sunnah of the Prophet (ﷺ) to solve their matters, that prophet said so and so, or prophet did so and so.

After the demise of the Prophet (ﷺ), the companions maintained this understanding. Whenever an issue arise they would always look for guidance from Prophet (ﷺ). They also used Prophet’s sunnah wisely to drive solutions for situations that didn’t occur at the time of Prophet.

In the Quran, Allah swt talks about al-hikmah (الحكمة),

وَأَنزَلَ اللَّـهُ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَعَلَّمَكَ مَا لَمْ تَكُن تَعْلَمُ
And Allah has revealed to you the Book and wisdom and has taught you that which you did not know. Quran 4:113

This shows that other than Quran, there were other things that were descended to the Prophet (ﷺ). These are referred in Quran as al-hikmah ( الحكمة) or wisdom. So, not only Quran was given to the Prophet, but the detailed understanding of it was given to him. For example, Quran said establish as-salat (daily prayers) then angle Gabriel taught the prophet how to ‘actually’ perform prayers. These detailed understanding was pass down from the Prophet (ﷺ) to his companions and were preserved by the companions as sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh).

Allah (swt) said that once must love the Prophet (ﷺ) over and above anything else.

قُلْ إِن كَانَ آبَاؤُكُمْ وَأَبْنَاؤُكُمْ وَإِخْوَانُكُمْ وَأَزْوَاجُكُمْ وَعَشِيرَتُكُمْ وَأَمْوَالٌ اقْتَرَفْتُمُوهَا وَتِجَارَةٌ تَخْشَوْنَ كَسَادَهَا وَمَسَاكِنُ تَرْضَوْنَهَا أَحَبَّ إِلَيْكُم مِّنَ اللَّـهِ وَرَسُولِهِ وَجِهَادٍ فِي سَبِيلِهِ فَتَرَبَّصُوا حَتَّىٰ يَأْتِيَ اللَّـهُ بِأَمْرِهِ ۗ وَاللَّـهُ لَا يَهْدِي الْقَوْمَ الْفَاسِقِينَ ﴿٢٤﴾
Say, [O Muhammad], "If your fathers, your sons, your brothers, your wives, your relatives, wealth which you have obtained, commerce wherein you fear decline, and dwellings with which you are pleased are more beloved to you than Allah and His Messenger and jihad in His cause, then wait until Allah executes His command. And Allah does not guide the defiantly disobedient people." Quran 9:24

Meaning one must obey and fulfill Prophet’s instructions over anyone else’s opinion. The companion of Prophet (صحابة) understood this well, and their love of the Prophet (ﷺ) surpassed their most beloved thing. They sacrificed their wealth, their time and their lives for their beloved Prophet (ﷺ). They were ever ready to fulfill any command or task Prophet (ﷺ) assigns them. The words and order of the Prophet of Allah (ﷺ) was that important to them.

  It is this utmost love and dedication of the companions of Prophet (صحابة) and those followed them, to preserve the sunnah of the Prophet (ﷺ) that we are able learn our Deen today, and to know Quran, and understand the intricacies of His Shariah in detail. May Allah be pleased with companions of the Prophet and those who sacrificed to preserve this Deen.

Just like the Prophet Mohammad (ﷺ) cannot be separated from Quran, i.e. one must believe the Messenger (who brought it) to believe in the Quran. Similarly, without Prophetic guidance and explanation, it will not be possible to comprehend and understand the Quran. In the absence of Prophet’s explanation, everyone will interpret words of Quran to his own desires, and create disputes. Hence, sunnah can never be separated from understanding Quran and Islam.

 In our times, we see lot of Muslims that declares Mohammad (ﷺ) as their messenger, but then they choose to give preference to own opinions (or of their supposed leaders), that openly contradicts the sunnah of the Prophet (ﷺ). On one hand, they claim they dearly love the Messenger (ﷺ), but on other hand they clearly disobey his commands. Yet, they claim they are obeying the Messenger while disobeying his commands. Some groups refuse to accept sunnah of the Prophet (ﷺ) by refusing to accept the authenticity of narrations and reports (called hadith) through which sunnah is transmitted to us; others downplay sunnah as of lesser importance.

For the purpose of our discussions, there are three prevalent groups who undermines and refuses to accept the importance and authority of sunnah can be categorized into 3 groups:

  1. First group that openly refuses to accept sunnah, and made it their mission to denounce it. E.g. Quranion, or Ghulam Pervaiz that appeared in indo-pak.
  2. Second group that accepted sunnah on the face value but continue to undermine its authority by dismissing its authority in the legislation.
  3. Third group that does not attach sunnah directly, rather they attack the companions of the Prophet (ﷺ), through whom the sunnah reaches us.

Since, the first group is well known in their intention, large number of scholars refuted them, and their ideas never found a hold in the larger masses of ummah. They claimed that sunnah is neither preserved, nor reliable. Hence, Quran is the only source to understand Islam. Expectedly, without a Prophetic commentary and explanation, they create hidden meaning of words and produced incredibly distorted explanation. Fortunately, by the mercy of Allah (swt), such distortion has never found much following, and it is generally rejected by the masses.

The third group did find audience following historical events that created a split in Ummah, and formed itself as a separate sect breaking away from the mainstream jamat (united group). They elevated the status of Prophet’s close companion and his son-in-law Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) by declaring that the authority rest with lineage of the Prophet (ﷺ) and his progeny only. They openly attacked and cursed the close companions of the Prophet (pbuh) and formulated their theology based on (supposed) narrations of descendants of Ali. Much of their evidences/text is unverifiable and require its own separate discussion.

The second group takes a veiled attack to the sunnah by reducing its authority and importance to few limited things often relating to basic rituals. They effectively nullify the large part of sunnah from providing detailed commentary on Quran as well as shariah (احكام الشريعة). Thus (clearing the way), in the absence of Prophetic commentary, they replace it with own desired opinions. There are various of these groups that used different arguments to undermine sunnah, for instance,

  • They create enough doubts in the mind of their listeners that the large part of preserved sunnah (or hadith) is unreliable. And the reliable sunnah is only that came through repeated actions (تواتر عملي) of Muslims, such as daily prayers (discussed later).
  • They delve into terminologies that may confuse a common listener but will leave enough doubt regarding a hadith for their audience. Such as the arguments over mutawatir (متواتر) hadith versus hadith ahaad (أحد), (discussed later).
  • They often stated that sunnah is only an optional command, and it’s not mandatory to act upon, e.g. optional sunnah prayers during 5 daily prayers. Hence, what’s in the Quran must be followed. And what’s in the sunnah is nice to follow, but not mandatory.
  • Some of them claimed that nothing can be made obligatory (from sunnah) unless it’s in the Quran. Hence, sunnah can only be considered as a recommendation. This misunderstanding emits from understanding of word “sunnah” as used by various scholars in the context of their respective disciplines (discussed later).
  • Some of them (like modernists) downplayed the role of sunnah to make it more viable with modern age, in particular, the West. Their arguments are more intricate, as they often accept authority of sunnah as a whole, but refuse to accept certain hadith that commands specific action that is troublesome to them (or their adopted lifestyle).
  • Some of the groups (like Orientalists, missionaries) attacked sunnah knowing well that it’s a basis and foundation of correct understanding. They often presented their arguments in form of dissertations and scholarly articles.

Then, there are those groups who are stuck in blind flowing (تقليد) of their own leaders or scholars. They gave preference to the opinion of their own leaders, over an established authentic hadith (صحيح حديث). They often present weak (ضعيف) or fabricated (موضوع) hadiths to support their opinion (or of their leaders), whilst its clearly incorrect to follow a weak (ضعيف) hadith, especially in the presence of authentic hadith (صحيح حديث). And there are no two opinions that fabricated (موضوع) hadiths has nothing to do with Islam.

While some may claim we live in different times, hence excused. The obedience to the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) is certainly not a time-barred commandment, that it was only required of his companions (صحابة) when the prophet (ﷺ) was alive. Rather, it remains obligatory for all-times upon all-Muslims until end of times, including the time we live in. None of the companions (صحابة) ever said that Quran is enough for him, nor their action ever doubted that. They always held on to the advice and sunnah of the Prophet (ﷺ). The companions and their successors did their job to leave us large repository of sunnah, well documented. Enough for us to correctly interpret and understand Islam. It is now our duty and obligation to learn sunnah and why its importance to understanding Quran and Shariah.

No wonder, the Prophet (ﷺ) said,

قَالَ ‏ "‏ قَدْ تَرَكْتُكُمْ عَلَى الْبَيْضَاءِ لَيْلُهَا كَنَهَارِهَا لاَ يَزِيغُ عَنْهَا بَعْدِي إِلاَّ هَالِكٌ مَنْ يَعِشْ مِنْكُمْ فَسَيَرَى اخْتِلاَفًا كَثِيرًا فَعَلَيْكُمْ بِمَا عَرَفْتُمْ مِنْ سُنَّتِي وَسُنَّةِ الْخُلَفَاءِ الرَّاشِدِينَ الْمَهْدِيِّينَ عَضُّوا عَلَيْهَا بِالنَّوَاجِذِ وَعَلَيْكُمْ بِالطَّاعَةِ ..‏"‏
He said: 'I am leaving you upon a (path of) brightness whose night is like its day. No one will deviate from it after I am gone but one who is doomed. Whoever among you lives will see great conflict. I urge you to adhere to what you know of my sunnah and the path of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, and cling stubbornly to it [literally: with your molar teeth]." (Sunan ibn Majah, also in Abi Dawood and Ahmed)

Hence, the purpose of this article is to: 

  1. Understand sunnah and its importance in explaining Quran, and Shariah (e.g. in performing Ijtihad)
  2. Explain the authority of Prophet and his sunnah (his way), as it applies to legislation and jurisprudence, and its status vis-à-vis to Quran.
  3. How sunnah was preserved from the time of Prophet (ﷺ) to our time, and how the science of usool al-hadith (Methodology of hadith) evolved to verify, critic and authenticate all reports and narrations of Prophet (pbuh).
  4. Identify groups that rejected sunnah within Islamic theology or from outside, and provide a rejoinder

Meaning of term “Sunnah”?

Linguistically the word “sunnah” (سنة) means a way, a path or course on which to walk, and it has become clear due to many who follows it. It could also mean a manner, or conduct of life, which is pursued by people or its follower, weather good or bad; approved or rejected.

The word “sunnah” (سنة) can be used for both negative or positive sense, i.e. either a good conduct of life or a blameworthy conduct of life. This explanation of sunnah is provided by the Prophet (ﷺ),

عَنْ جَرِيرِ بْنِ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏ "‏ مَنْ سَنَّ فِي الإِسْلاَمِ سُنَّةً حَسَنَةً فَعُمِلَ بِهَا بَعْدَهُ كُتِبَ لَهُ مِثْلُ أَجْرِ مَنْ عَمِلَ بِهَا وَلاَ يَنْقُصُ مِنْ أُجُورِهِمْ شَىْءٌ وَمَنْ سَنَّ فِي الإِسْلاَمِ سُنَّةً سَيِّئَةً فَعُمِلَ بِهَا بَعْدَهُ كُتِبَ عَلَيْهِ مِثْلُ وِزْرِ مَنْ عَمِلَ بِهَا وَلاَ يَنْقُصُ مِنْ أَوْزَارِهِمْ شَىْءٌ ‏"‏
Jarir b. Abdullah reported: Thereupon Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said: He who introduced some good practice in Islam which was followed after him (by people) he would be assured of reward like one who followed it, without their rewards being diminished in any respect. And he who introduced some evil practice in Islam which had been followed subsequently (by others), he would be required to bear the burden like that of one who followed this (evil practice) without their's being diminished in any respect. (Sahih al-Muslim)

In Shariah term, when word “sunnah” is generally referred to sunnah of Prophet Mohammad (ﷺ), i.e. the way, conduct or practice of the Prophet (ﷺ). As the prophet explained himself:

  1. فَعَلَيْكُمْ بِسُنَّتِي وَسُنَّةِ الْخُلَفَاءِ الرَّاشِدِينَ الْمَهْدِيينَ، عَضُّوا عَلَيْهَا بِالنَّوَاجِذِ – “so you must keep to my sunnah and to the sunnah of the Khulafa ar-Rashideen (the rightly guided caliphs), those who guide to the right way. Cling to it stubbornly [literally: with your molar teeth]” (Sunan Abi Dawood, also in At-Thirmidi. Hassan Sahih)
  2. فَمَنْ رَغِبَ عَنْ سُنَّتِي فَلَيْسَ مِنِّي – “So he who does not follow my sunnah, is not from me (not one of my followers)” (Sahih al-Bukhari, also in al-Muslim, An-Nisaii)
  3. عَنْ طَلْحَةَ بْنِ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ عَوْفٍ، قَالَ صَلَّيْتُ خَلْفَ ابْنِ عَبَّاسٍ ـ رضى الله عنهما ـ عَلَى جَنَازَةٍ فَقَرَأَ بِفَاتِحَةِ الْكِتَابِ قَالَ لِيَعْلَمُوا أَنَّهَا سُنَّةٌ‏.‏ - “Narrated Talha bin `Abdullah bin `Auf: I offered the funeral prayer behind Ibn `Abbas and he recited Al-Fatiha and said, "You should know that it (i.e. recitation of Al-Fatiha) is the sunnah of the Prophet (ﷺ) Muhammad” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
  4. وَتَفْتَرِقُ أُمَّتِي عَلَى ثَلاَثٍ وَسَبْعِينَ مِلَّةً كُلُّهُمْ فِي النَّارِ إِلاَّ مِلَّةً وَاحِدَةً قَالُوا وَمَنْ هِيَ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ قَالَ مَا أَنَا عَلَيْهِ وَأَصْحَابِي – “Prophet said, and my Ummah will split into seventy-three sects. All of them are in the Fire Except one sect." He said: "And which is it O Messenger of Allah?" He said: "What I am upon and my Companions."” (at-Thirmidi, Daeef)

However, the word “sunnah” is common sense can be used for any other person. For instance, the animal sacrifice during Hajj is referred to as “Sunnah of Ibrahim (pbuh)”, or Laws or decree of Allah is referred to as “sunnah of Allah (swt)”, as in the Quran:

  1. سُنَّةَ اللَّـهِ فِي الَّذِينَ خَلَوْا مِن قَبْلُ ۖ وَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّةِ اللَّـهِ تَبْدِيلًا – “That was the Way (sunnah) of Allah in the case of those who passed away of old, and you will not find any change in the Way of Allah.” Quran 33:62, also similar in Quran 48:23
  2. سُنَّةَ مَن قَدْ أَرْسَلْنَا قَبْلَكَ مِن رُّسُلِنَا ۖ وَلَا تَجِدُ لِسُنَّتِنَا تَحْوِيلًا – “(This was Our) sunnah (rule or way) with the Messengers We sent before you (O Muhammad ﷺ), and you will not find any alteration in Our sunnah (rule or way, etc.).” Quran 17:77
  3. قَدْ كَانَتْ لَكُمْ أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ فِي إِبْرَاهِيمَ وَالَّذِينَ مَعَهُ إِذْ قَالُوا لِقَوْمِهِمْ إِنَّا بُرَآءُ مِنكُمْ وَمِمَّا تَعْبُدُونَ مِن دُونِ اللَّـهِ – “Indeed there has been an excellent example for you in Ibrahim (Abraham) and those with him, when they said to their people: "Verily, we are free from you and whatever you worship besides Allah, we have rejected you,” Quran 60:4
  4. It is reported in a hadith, عَنْ زَيْدِ بْنِ أَرْقَمَ، قَالَ قَالَ أَصْحَابُ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ ـ صلى الله عليه وسلم ـ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ مَا هَذِهِ الأَضَاحِيُّ قَالَ ‏"‏ سُنَّةُ أَبِيكُمْ إِبْرَاهِيمَ ‏"‏ - “The Companions of the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: ‘O Messenger of Allah, what are these sacrifices?’ He said: ‘The sunnah of your father Ibrahim.’” (Sunan ibn Majah, Daeef)

Categories of sunnah

With respect to legislation, sunnah of the Prophet (ﷺ) can be categorized into three,

  1. Statements of the Prophet – sunnah qawli (سنة قولى)

    These are the statements of Prophet that relates to rules of Sharia (احكام الشريعة), e.g.
    The prophet said, وَصَلُّوا كَمَا رَأَيْتُمُونِي أُصَلِّي - “Pray as you have seen me praying” (Sahih al-Bukhari)

  2. Actions of the Prophet – sunnah fi’li (سنة فعلى)

    These are the actions and conduct of the Prophet that he did either for act of worships (عبادات), or social or business transactions (معاملات), e.g.
    قَالَ سَمِعْتُ النُّعْمَانَ بْنَ بَشِيرٍ، قَالَ كَانَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم يُسَوِّي صُفُوفَنَا إِذَا قُمْنَا لِلصَّلاَةِ فَإِذَا اسْتَوَيْنَا كَبَّرَ ‏- “Narrated An-Nu'man ibn Bashir: The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) used to straighten our rows when we stood up to pray, and when we were straight, he said: Allah is most great (takbir).” (Sunan Abi Dawood)

  3. Tacit approvals of the Prophet – sunnah taqriri (سنة تقريرى)

    The refers to tacit approvals of the Prophet, where something was said or done, and prophet either remained silent (i.e. did not disapproved it) or he showed likeness for it or was satisfied with it. E.g.
    عَنْ قَيْسِ بْنِ عَمْرٍو، قَالَ رَأَى رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم رَجُلاً يُصَلِّي بَعْدَ صَلاَةِ الصُّبْحِ رَكْعَتَيْنِ فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏ "‏ صَلاَةُ الصُّبْحِ رَكْعَتَانِ ‏"‏ ‏.‏ فَقَالَ الرَّجُلُ إِنِّي لَمْ أَكُنْ صَلَّيْتُ الرَّكْعَتَيْنِ اللَّتَيْنِ قَبْلَهُمَا فَصَلَّيْتُهُمَا الآنَ ‏.‏ فَسَكَتَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم - “Narrated Qays ibn Amr: The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) saw a person praying after the congregational prayer at dawn was over. The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: There are two rak'ahs of the dawn prayer (i.e. the prescribed rak'ahs). The man replied: I did not pray the two rak'ahs before the dawn prayer. Hence, I offered them now. The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) kept silent.” (Sunan Abi Dawood)
    i.e. if this action of the companion was incorrect, then Prophet would’ve stopped him.

For study of usool al-fiqh (legal theory or principles of jurispudence), the relevant sunnah is that relates to Ahkam (أحكام, jurisdictions/law), and are not matters relating to personal nature. i.e. daily personal activities of the Prophet (ﷺ) e.g him applying kohl to his eyes before sleeping.

Term “Sunnah” in various disciplines of Shariah

1. General Terms:

Imran Ayub counted 4 uses of term “Sunnah” 21,

  • As a general term of reference to the way of Prophet, includes both Quran and sunnah. The Ahl as-Sunnah wal Jamat, is the main stream Muslim denomination, that uphold the principle of following “Quran” and “Sunnah”, and extracting their principles, laws and jurisprudence from it. They drive that prophet’s guidance, as
    The Prophet (ﷺ) stated, فَمَنْ رَغِبَ عَنْ سُنَّتِي فَلَيْسَ مِنِّي – “So he who does not follow my tradition in religion, is not from me (not one of my followers)” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
  • As an interchangeable term to hadith, generally when its referred to with Quran. i.e. when Prophet (ﷺ) stated, تَرَكْتُ فِيكُمْ أَمْرَيْنِ لَنْ تَضِلُّوا مَا تَمَسَّكْتُمْ بِهِمَا كِتَابَ اللَّهِ وَسُنَّةَ نَبِيِّهِ – “I have left two matters with you. As long as you hold to them, you will not go the wrong way. They are the Book of Allah and the sunnah of His Prophet”[Muwata Malik].

    In Islamic studies, scholars generally mean to refer to hadith, when the sunnah of Prophet is mentioned.
  • As an antonym to word Bidah (بدعة), which is described as newly innovated matters in religion that are contrary to “sunnah” of the Prophet Mohammad (ﷺ).
    Prophet (ﷺ) stated, فَعَلَيْكُمْ بِسُنَّتِي وَسُنَّةِ الْخُلَفَاءِ الرَّاشِدِينَ الْمَهْدِيينَ، عَضُّوا عَلَيْهَا بِالنَّوَاجِذِ، وَإِيَّاكُمْ وَمُحْدَثَاتِ الْأُمُورِ؛ فَإِنَّ كُلَّ بِدْعَةٍ ضَلَالَةٌ – “so you must keep to my sunnah and to the sunnah of the Khulafa ar-Rashideen (the rightly guided caliphs), those who guide to the right way. Cling to it stubbornly [literally: with your molar teeth]. Beware of newly invented matters [in the religion], for verily every bidah (innovation) is misguidance.” (Sunan Abi Dawood)
  • As a mandob22 (مندوب) category of Islamic fiqh (jurisprudence), means recommended. It is part of sunnah attributed to the Prophet (pbuh)’s actions. e.g. additional sunnah rakah (units of prayers) during 5 daily obligatory prayers.
    The Prophet (ﷺ) stated, ولا أن أشق على أمتي - أو على الناس- لأمرتهم بالسواك مع كل صلاة‏ - “Had I not thought it difficult for my Ummah, I would have commanded them to use the Miswak (tooth-cleaning-stick) before every Salat” (Agreed upon).
    This shows that though using miswak is sunnah of the Prophet (ﷺ), but it’s not obligatory. However, there are other sunnah that were considered wajib (واجب, obligatory), like 2 rakah (units) prior to Fajr (dawn) prayers.

2. Scholarly term:

Sunnah term as used in various disciplines of Islamic Studies. Zarabozo23 pointed out that various disciplines use the word in different context, for instance, Jurist (faqih, فقيه), hadith scholars (muhadith, محدّث), legal theorist (usooli, اصولى), and in creed (iman/aqueeda, ايمان و عقيدة) etc.

  • Sunnah application by Jurist (فقيه)

    Jurist (in fiqh) used the term sunnah close to its lexical meaning, i.e. the praiseworthy way of the actions (of Prophet Mohammad). Their concerns were mainly relating to rulings of particular actions (under commissioning commands (hukm taklifi, حكم تكليفى)), i.e. 1) Fard (فرض, compulsory), 2) Haram (حرام, prohibited), 3) Mandub, sunnah, Nafl (مندوب, سنّة, نفل, recommended), 4) Makruh (مكروه, disliked), 5) Mubah (مباح, permissible).

    For them sunnah is an extension to Wajib (واجب, obligatory)24, and is required without been assertive. It’s an act that protects wajib. They used variety of terms, like Mandub (مندوب), Nafl (نفل) or Mustahib (مستحب) etc., to categorize the importance of each act of sunnah, while they all described them as “recommended” actions that are encouraged. i.e. these acts are pleasing to Allah (swt), and are means to get closer to him. However, if a person does it he gets reward, but if he doesn’t do it, it’s not sinful. However, this doesn’t apply to all acts of sunnah, as some act of sunnah must be done on continual basis. Ahnaf defined them a sunnah muwakida (سنة موكده, emphasized sunnah). Scholars also stated, based on numerous hadith that leaving sunnah all-together is sinful.

    Jurist’s definition of sunnah created much of source of confusion for mases with respect to the importance and authority of sunnah in other disciplines Shariah, like Tafsir (exegesis), Usool (legal theory), and creed etc.

    Jurist also used term sunnah as an opposite of innovation or heresy (بدعاء, bidah), as mentioned earlier. For instance, jurist refers to a case of talaq (طلاق, divorce) as talaq as-sunnah (طلاق السنة), if it conforms to Prophet’s teaching. Or call it talaq al-bidah (طلاق البدعه), if it contradicts sunnah (i.e. triple divorce in one sitting).

  • Sunnah application by Scholars of hadith (محدث)

    The purpose of study of hadith is to document everything related to Prophet’s life, including every single detail that relates to his sayings, actions, approvals, conduct, his appearances, his characteristics, or his biography.

    Muhadditheen (محديثين, scholars of hadith) considered the term sunnah and hadith can be used interchangeably. They the term sunnah in its broadest sense to cover all topics relating news that were passed down concerning the Prophet Mohammad (ﷺ). (See our definition of categories of sunnah earlier).

    From a study of hadith perspective, these all are relevant information to collect and investigate. However, some of them may have no legal bearing on Islamic Law. e.g. information relating to Prophet’s migration from Makkah to Madinah, or his physical appearances.

    Here we may note, that hadith relating to migration is incredible tool in other areas of Shariah, like tafsir (exegesis) of Quran, and to understand Naskh (نسخ, abrogated) commands.

  • Sunnah application by Scholars of Usool-Fiqh (أصول الفقه, Principles of Jurispudence)

    Usooli (اصولى, scholars of usool al-fiqh) were mainly concerned with Ahkam (أحكام, jurisdictions/law) in Shariah Law. They looked at sunnah as a source of Islamic Law. They used the term sunnah as three things, namely 1) saying, 2) actions, and 3) tacid approvals of the Prophet Mohammad (ﷺ) that deals with ahkham (أحكام, jurisdictions/law). This means that hadith that doesn’t involve one of the above three things associated to the Prophet wasn’t the subject of their study. Similarly, any hadith prior to prophethood, were not part of their circle of sunnah study. However, they did include whatever is supported by evidences from Shariah to the opposite of Bidah (بدعة). They also included hadith qudsi25 (حديث قدسى) as part of sunnah.

    Usooli scholars carefully looked at the hadith literature, and they try to distinguish sunnah between what constitutes an authority vs an example to follow. Prophet (ﷺ) sunnah include what Prophet commanded, recommended, permitted, disapprove or forbade. Prophet’s actions, approvals and orders are considered an authority in Shariah Law. Hence, they included selected hadith that directly deals with defining usool (principles), and excluded:

    1. hadith that has no legal bearing to Shariah Law, e.g. Prophet use to snore lightly. Has no legal bearing to law, and it’s a good example or recommendation?
    2. hadith that are less than grade of “hasan”, i.e. only Sahih and Hassan hadith are acceptable as source of usool.
    3. hadith that included laws that are special for Prophet (ﷺ) only. E.g. It was allowed for Prophet to keep all his wives, comparing to general law of 4 wives.

    Usooli scholar’s objective was to study sunnah and the Prophet Mohammad as law-giver (الشارح) to establish principles and legislative framework from his examples, commands, and approvals. Hence, they made special efforts to preserve sunnah that relates to Ahkam (أحكام, jurisdictions/law).

  • Sunnah application by Scholars of Aqueeda (عقيده, creed) & Tawheed (توحيد)

    The domain of Scholars of Aqueeda (Creed) is the core of the religion  (أصـل الــدين). Their area of study is foundation of the faith, matter relating to creed, definitive ruling and obligatory deeds. Their use of term sunnah is often comprehensive and covers all aspects of faith that is practiced and preached by the Prophet (pbuh). These include both say “saying” and “action” (قول و عمل), as well as well-established obligatory acts like salah (prayers) and zakat (charity) etc.

    Their use of term sunnah became popular as more sects starts to appear. Some of these groups disputed in basic tenants of faith and core creeds. The scholars then identified well-established article of faith from sunnah, to distinguish them from heretical groups. Hence, they also used the term sunnah to refer to saved sect, that follows the overall all methodology of the Prophet and his companions, and those who followed them. i.e. ahl as-sunnah or people who follow the sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh).

    The term sunnah in this area of study then refer to way of the Prophet (pbuh) in area of knowledge, believes, statements, and deeds. And the companions who followed them in practicing the sunnah, who followed the same minhaj (منهج, methodology) as taught to them by the Prophet (pbuh). And the later generations who followed the companions. The group ahl as-sunnah then distinguishes itself from other heretical groups, that rejects or refused to follow the sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh).

Meaning of term “hadith”?

The Arabic word “hadith” literally means communication, story, conversation: religious or secular, historical or recent26. It could be true or false, relating to past or present. When it’s used as adjective it means “new” (as opposed to “old”).

The word “hadith” (حديث) is being referred to in both Quran and hadith,

  1. hadith as a revealed message (i.e. Quran),
    اللَّـهُ نَزَّلَ أَحْسَنَ الْحَدِيثِ كِتَابًا - Allah has sent down the best hadith (i.e. statement, communication, or message), a Book (this Quran)” Quran 39:23.
    The Prophet (ﷺ) said, إِنَّ أَحْسَنَ الْحَدِيثِ كِتَابُ اللَّهِ – “The best hadith is book of Allah” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
  2. hadith as a historical story,
    هَلْ أَتَاكَ حَدِيثُ مُوسَىٰ – “Has there come to you the hadith (i.e. story) of Musa (Moses)?” Quran 79:15
    The Prophet (ﷺ) said, وَحَدِّثُوا عَنْ بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ– “tell others the hadith (i.e. stories) of Bani Israel” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
  3. hadith as a general conversation,
    وَإِذَا رَأَيْتَ الَّذِينَ يَخُوضُونَ فِي آيَاتِنَا فَأَعْرِضْ عَنْهُمْ حَتَّىٰ يَخُوضُوا فِي حَدِيثٍ غَيْرِهِ – “And when you see those who engage in [offensive] discourse concerning Our verses, then turn away from them until they enter into another hadith (i.e. conversation).” Quran 6:68 The Prophet (ﷺ) said, وَمَنِ اسْتَمَعَ إِلَى حَدِيثِ قَوْمٍ وَهُمْ لَهُ كَارِهُونَ أَوْ يَفِرُّونَ مِنْهُ، صُبَّ فِي أُذُنِهِ الآنُكُ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ – “and if somebody listens (i.e. eavesdrops) to the hadith (i.e. talk, conversation) of some people who do not like him (to listen) or they run away from him, then molten lead will be poured into his ears on the Day of Resurrection” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
  4. hadith as a current story or conversation,
    وَإِذْ أَسَرَّ النَّبِيُّ إِلَىٰ بَعْضِ أَزْوَاجِهِ حَدِيثًا – “And (remember) when the Prophet disclosed a hadith (i.e. a matter or secret) in confidence to one of his wives (i.e. Hafsah)” Quran 66:3
    The Prophet (ﷺ) said, إِذَا حَدَّثَ الرَّجُلُ بِالْحَدِيثِ ثُمَّ الْتَفَتَ فَهِيَ أَمَانَةٌ – “When a man tells a hadith (i.e. a matter or secret) and then departs, then his words become amanah (i.e. trust)” (at-Thirmidi)
  5. hadith in a meaning of “new”,
    مَا يَأْتِيهِم مِّن ذِكْرٍ مِّن رَّبِّهِم مُّحْدَثٍ – “Comes not unto them an admonition (a chapter of the Quran) from their Lord as a recent revelation” Quran 21:2
    Reported in a hadith, عَنْ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ، قَالَ كُنَّا نُسَلِّمُ فِي الصَّلاَةِ وَنَأْمُرُ بِحَاجَتِنَا فَقَدِمْتُ عَلَى رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم وَهُوَ يُصَلِّي فَسَلَّمْتُ عَلَيْهِ فَلَمْ يَرُدَّ عَلَىَّ السَّلاَمَ فَأَخَذَنِي مَا قَدُمَ وَمَا حَدُثَ فَلَمَّا قَضَى رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم الصَّلاَةَ قَالَ ‏ "‏ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحْدِثُ مِنْ أَمْرِهِ مَا يَشَاءُ وَإِنَّ اللَّهَ جَلَّ وَعَزَّ قَدْ أَحْدَثَ مِنْ أَمْرِهِ أَنْ لاَ تَكَلَّمُوا فِي الصَّلاَةِ ‏"‏ ‏.‏ فَرَدَّ عَلَىَّ السَّلاَمَ - “Narrated Abdullah ibn Mas'ud: We used to salute during prayer and talk about our needs. I came to the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) and found him praying. I saluted him, but he did not respond to me. I recalled what happened to me in the past and in the present. When the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) finished his prayer, he said to me: Allah, the Almighty, creates new command as He wishes, and Allah, the Exalted, has sent a fresh command that you must not talk during prayer. He then returned my salutation.” (Sunan Abi-Dawood)

In Shariah term, it refers to the stories and communication from the time of the Prophet Mohammad (ﷺ)27, exclusively reporting:

  1. His actions and saying, his tacit approvals,
  2. His manners, his physical characteristics, and
  3. His biography.

Structure of hadith

hadith is composed of two parts:

  1. Isnaad (اسناد), or chain of narrators
  2. Matn (متن), the actual text of hadith

Based on usool al-hadith (hadith methodology), each hadith is reviewed and scrutinized for its authenticity. This include both parts of hadiths (i.e. Isnaad and Matn). In general, hadith are graded into following main categories:

  1. Sahih (صحيح), or authentic

    hadith that qualifies for all 5 criteria mentioned below, i.e. it has unbroken chain of narrators, its narrators have integrity and accuracy, and it conformant. General consensus is that such hadith is a legal proof (حجة).
    For instance, following hadith meet all 5 criteria.
    حَدَّثَنَا عَبْدُ اللَّهِ بْنُ يُوسُفَ، قَالَ أَخْبَرَنَا مَالِكٌ، عَنِ ابْنِ شِهَابٍ، عَنْ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ جُبَيْرِ بْنِ مُطْعِمٍ، عَنْ أَبِيهِ، قَالَ سَمِعْتُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَرَأَ فِي الْمَغْرِبِ بِالطُّورِ‏.‏ - “Narrated Jubair bin Mut`im: My father said, "I heard Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) reciting "at-Tur" (52) in the Maghrib prayer."” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 10, hadith 159, Book Adhan)

  2. Hasan (حسن), or good,

    Is similar to Sahih hadith except a given narrator in hasan hadith may not have same level of accuracy (ضبط). For instance, following hadith is graded hasan because one narrator Jafar bin Sulaiman’s accuracy is considered inferior.

    حَدَّثَنَا قُتَيْبَةُ، حَدَّثَنَا جَعْفَرُ بْنُ سُلَيْمَانَ الضُّبَعِيُّ، عَنْ أَبِي عِمْرَانَ الْجَوْنِيِّ، عَنْ أَبِي بَكْرِ بْنِ أَبِي مُوسَى الأَشْعَرِيِّ، قَالَ سَمِعْتُ أَبِي بِحَضْرَةِ الْعَدُوِّ، يَقُولُ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏ "‏ إِنَّ أَبْوَابَ الْجَنَّةِ تَحْتَ ظِلاَلِ السُّيُوفِ ‏"– “Narrated Abu Bakr bin Abi Musa Al-Ash'ari: "I heard my father saying in the presence of the enemy: 'The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: "Indeed, the gates of Paradise are under the shadows of the swords.'"” (Jami at-Thirmidi 1659, Book 22, hadith 41)

  3. Daeef (ضيف), or weak

    hadith in which one or more of the 5 criteria of Sahih hadith have not been met.

    • For instance, following hadith is graded daeef because one Muaz bin Zuhra is a tabaii (تابعى, successor of companion of the Prophet), hence in the chain of narration, the companion (صحابى, Sahabi) is missing from the chain. Such hadith is classified as Mursal (مرسل, rushed), and graded daeef.

      حَدَّثَنَا مُسَدَّدٌ، حَدَّثَنَا هُشَيْمٌ، عَنْ حُصَيْنٍ، عَنْ مُعَاذِ بْنِ زُهْرَةَ، أَنَّهُ بَلَغَهُ أَنَّ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم كَانَ إِذَا أَفْطَرَ قَالَ ‏ "‏ اللَّهُمَّ لَكَ صُمْتُ وَعَلَى رِزْقِكَ أَفْطَرْتُ ‏"‏ ‏- “Narrated Mu'adh ibn Zuhrah: The Prophet of Allah (ﷺ) used to say when he broke his fast: O Allah, for Thee I have fasted, and with Thy provision I have broken my fast.” (Sunan Abi Dawood 2358, Book 14, hadith 46, باب الْقَوْلِ عِنْدَ الإِفْطَارِ).

  4. Mawdoo (موضوع), or fabricated

    When a narrator is known to lie on the Prophet (ﷺ), then such hadith is graded as mawdoo (fabricated). Technically, they are not hadith rather just a lie invented to serve self interest.

Qualifying criteria for hadith

In a detailed study, they are further divided into many sub categories and other classifications, to help a thorough scrutiny. For hadith to be considered as source of law in jurisprudence, a hadith must be either (1) Sahih (authentic) or (2) Hassan (good).

There are 5 basic criteria that must exist in a hadith for it to be qualified as sahih or hasan,

  1. Unbroken Chain (اتصال السند): The chain of narrators or transmitters, i.e. in Isnaad (اسناد), who are relating the text must be unbroken. The narrator is called “rawi” (راوي). The narrator must be known individual, otherwise its classified as unknown (مجهول) and chain is considered broken.
  2. Integrity of Narrator (عدلة): Each narrator in the chain must be of acceptable righteousness and character. a) A practicing Muslim, b) who was not known for any major forbidden things, c) Trustworthy, not known to be a liar. These biographies of narrators are well documented in hadith literature under books of “Rijals” (أسماء و الرجال)
  3. Accuracy of Narrator (ضبط): The narrator must be proficient in narrating hadith. a) Narrator must show soundness in memory while narrating, and be able to repeat. e.g. If narrator repeats the hadith in different way, then this hadith is classified as mudtarib (مضطرب, confused), and its graded as daeef (weak, ضيف). When narrator’s accuracy is mediocre but other conditions are fulfilled, then its graded as hasan (good, حسن). b) if Narrator doesn’t have good memory, but known for recording in his books, then his narrations can only be from his book.
  4. Conformity (غير شاذّ): The hadith must not contradict other similar hadith narrated on this topic by stronger chain or hadith. Shadh (شاذّ) hadiths are classified as daeef (weak, ضيف).
  5. No hidden defects (لا علة): After the thorough examination of said hadith, it should not have any hidden mistakes or defects, either in chain or text.

When it comes to Isnaad (اسناد), chain of narrators, hadith can be graded into two,

  1. Mutawatir (اسنادمتواتر) or continuously recurrent,

    is a hadith that is reported by large number of narrators at each level of chain, and whose agreement on a lie is unconceivable. Majority of scholars considered such hadith as equivalent of Quran, as it created certainty. E.g.
    Prophet (ﷺ) stated, وَمَنْ كَذَبَ عَلَىَّ مُتَعَمِّدًا فَلْيَتَبَوَّأْ مَقْعَدَهُ مِنَ النَّارِ – “And whoever tells a lie on me intentionally, will surely take his place in the (Hell) Fire” (Sahih al-Bukhari) This hadith is narrated by more than 70 companions.

  2. Ahad (اسنادآحاد) or solitary,

    also known as Khabar al-wahid (خبر الواحد, narration of an individual) is hadith in which minimum number of narrators in each level of chain is less than mutawatir hadith. e.g.
    Prophet (ﷺ) stated, ‏ إِنَّمَا الأَعْمَالُ بِالنِّيَّاتِ “"The reward of deeds depends upon the intentions” (Sahih al-Bukhari) This hadith is narrated only through Umar ibn Khattab

    • Mashoor ( مشھور) or famous, is defined as a hadith which is originally reported by one, two or more companions of the Prophet, or from another companion, but later became famous and transmitted by indefinite number of people. i.e. it’s a ahad hadith in the beginning of chain, but became famous 2nd century, after the companion’s era. The distinction between ahad and mashoor hadith is important in Ahnaf ( أحناف), who considered acting upon mashoor hadith to be obligatory. In comparison, their criteria on ahad hadith admittance was much stiffer (discussed later).

Relationship between sunnah & hadith

Linguistically, the word “sunnah” and “hadith” have different meanings, when its spoken in Arabic language. i.e. “sunnah” means the way or conduct, and “hadith” means conversation, story or new.

Scholars have often used these terms interchangeably with in their own field of work (as we discussed earlier). For instance, in usool al-hadith (hadith methodology) and associated science of hadith to document and study hadith, these both are synonymous. i.e. both term in usool al-hadith deals with Prophet Mohammad (ﷺ) saying, actions, and conduct. However, that is not the case in fiqh ( فقه, jurisprudence).

In general terms, what can be distinguished between them is, “sunnah” is Prophet Mohammad (ﷺ) saying, actions, and conduct, and “hadith” is how these stories and conversations reaches us.

hadith” (i.e. a news, story, conversation) can be sahih (authentic) or daeef (weak) or maudhoo (rejected, unverified). But in contrast “sunnah” cannot be weak or rejected. It is only “sunnah” when its actually done by the Prophet (ﷺ), and the story is verifiable. However, the actual sunnah is captured through the reports that are passed down to us from the Prophet (ﷺ) through his companions, and those who followed them, and these reports are preserved and recorded in hadith literature.

hadith literature captured and record all-stories either authentic or not. Hence, not every hadith is a sunnah. Rather, only the hadith that are verified and accepted represents sunnah of the Messenger (ﷺ). On the flip side, every sunnah is preserved, recorded, verified and authenticated in hadith literature.

Difference between sunnah and hadith

hadith and sunnah differs in following way:

  1. Sunnah is actual statement ( قولي), action ( فعلي) or tacid approval ( تقريري) of the Prophet (ﷺ). While hadith is the vehicle through which this sunnah is transmitted to us.
  2. Sunnah is only related to the Prophet (ﷺ). While hadith also include what relates to his Companions ( صحابة), which is also referred to as athar ( اثر).
  3. hadith has two parts i) chain narrators ( إسناد) ii) and text ( متن), while sunnah is whats mentioned in the text ( متن).
  4. Sunnah scholar is one generally knows the whole biography of the Prophet (أسوة حسنة). While the scholar of hadith ( محدث) also understand hadith literature, including the biographies of narrator’s, science of hadith methodology to distinguish and grade hadiths from authentic ( صحيح/span>) and weak ( ضيف) etc.
  5. Sunnah is the actual conduct of the Prophet (ﷺ), i.e. it includes only hadith that are graded authentic and good. While hadith include all other grades i.e. sahih, hasan, daif, matrook, mawdo.
  6. When it comes to quantity, sunnah has much lesser quantity comparing to hadith. This is due to fact that one sunnah may be narrated many times in many hadith. e.g. a single sunnah statement “إِنَّمَا الأَعْمَالُ بِالنِّيَّاتِ” is narrated through many hadith.
  7. Sunnah is only from the hadith that fulfills the criteria of acceptance, e.g. Sahih ( صحيح) or authentic. While hadith may be categorized as Sahih, Hasan ( حسن) or good, Daeef ( ضيف) or weak, Matrook, Mawdoo ( موضوع) or fabricated etc. sunnah can never be termed as good sunnah or weak sunnah.

END OF PART 1 

PART 2: Legislative Authority of Sunnah (2)


FOOTNOTES
  1. (pbuh) is commonly used abbreviation for peace and blessings of Allah be upon him.
  2.   Quran, Chapter 4:1 An-Nisa (The Women)
  3.   Quran, Chapter 33:70-71 Al-Ahzab (The Confederates)
  4.   Reported by al-Muslim
  5.   Reported by At-Tirmithi
  6.   Reported by Al-Bukhari and al-Muslim
  7.   Sahih – Tafsir Ibn Khatir
  8.   Quran, Chapter 3:31 Al-Imran (The Family of Imran)
  9.   Quran, Chapter 3:19 Al-Imran (The Family of Imran)
  10.   Quran, Chapter 3:85 Al-Imran (The Family of Imran)
  11.   Quran, Chapter 3:20 Al-Imran (The Family of Imran)
  12.   Quran, Chapter 3:110 Al-Imran (The Family of Imran)
  13.   Quran, Chapter 3:10 Al-Imran (The Family of Imran)
  14.   Reported by Muslim
  15.   Quran, Chapter 5:3 Al-Ma'idah (The Table Spread)
  16.   Reported by Bukhari and Muslim
  17.   Quran, Chapter 10:17 Yunus (Jonah)
  18.   Recorded by Ibn ‘Adiyy, al-Khatib al-Bhaghdadi, Ibn Asakir, and others. It is reported from number of sahabah including Abu Hurairah, Ibn Masud, and Anas (ra). All of its reports have various levels of weakness, but they add up collectively to make this hadith hasan, as is indicated by al-Albani in Mishkat ul-Masabih (#248), and as expressed by al-Halabi in al-Hittah (p. 70).
  19.   Quran, Chapter 30:30 Ar-Rum (The Romans)
  20. Quran 5:48, وَأَنزَلْنَا إِلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ بِالْحَقِّ مُصَدِّقًا لِّمَا بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ مِنَ الْكِتَابِ وَمُهَيْمِنًا عَلَيْهِ ۖ فَاحْكُم بَيْنَهُم بِمَا أَنزَلَ اللَّـهُ ۖ وَلَا تَتَّبِعْ أَهْوَاءَهُمْ عَمَّا جَاءَكَ مِنَ الْحَقِّ ۚ لِكُلٍّ جَعَلْنَا مِنكُمْ شِرْعَةً وَمِنْهَاجًا – “And We have sent down to you (O Muhammad) the Book (this Quran) in truth, confirming the Scripture that came before it and Mohayminan (trustworthy in highness and a witness) over it (old Scriptures). So judge between them by what Allah has revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging away from the truth that has come to you. To each among you, We have prescribed a law and a clear way.”
  21. Hafiz Imran Ayub, Book of sunnah
  22. It is one of the 5 commissioning commands (hukm taklifi, حكم تكليفى) that are related to our actions as legislated by Quran or sunnah, i.e. 1) Fard (فرض, compulsory), 2) Haram (حرام, prohibited), 3) Mandub, sunnah, Nafl (مندوب, سنّة, نفل, recommended), 4) Makruh (مكروه, disliked), 5) Mubah (مباح, permissible)
  23. Jamal ad-Din Zarabozo, Authority of sunnah
  24. The majority of scholars of Usool al-Fiqh – apart from the Ahnafs and one report from Imam Ahmad – are of the view that fard and wajib are synonymous
  25. hadith qudsi are statements of the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) that he attributed to Allah’s word, but they are not from Quran.
  26. Studies in hadith Methodology and Literature, M.M. Azami
  27. Usool al-hadith, Bilal Philips