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Sunnah(سنة /ˈsunna/, plural سنن sunan /ˈsunæn/) is an Arabic word that means habit or usual practice[1]. The Muslim usage of this term refers to the sayings and living habits of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Recording sunnah was an Arabic tradition, and once people converted to Islam, they brought the tradition to the religion[2]. The Sunnah of Muhammad includes his specific words, actions, and practices [3]. It is significant to the spirituality of Islam because it addresses ways of life dealing with friends, family, and government [4]. How far the hadith contributes to the sunnah is disputed, and highly dependent on the context. In the context of Islamic Law, Imam Malik and the Hanafi scholars assumed to have differentiated between the sunna 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[who?], sunnah consists 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 ones from the true or proper ones. These were influential in the development of early Muslim philosophy and modern scientific citation. The allegiance to the tribal sunnah, which had been partially replaced during the time of the Prophet by submission to a new universal authority, and the feeling of brotherhood among all Muslims which had replaced Muhammad's death.[5]

Sunnah and Islamic Spirituality

These sayings and ways of Muhammad have not only been recorded and handed down so that him may be known to all generations of Muslims, but also so that his nature can be an example to be followed. There are passages in the Qur'an that command that the prophet be followed, such as 3:32 "Obey Allah and His Messenger" [6].

For Muslims, the spiritual significance of the Sunnah is more than simply doing as Muhammad did; to imitate him helps one to know God and be loved by God[7]. Believers think that if one imitates and embraces the ways of Muhammad, they will also be loved by God. To love and be loved by God is key in Islamic spirituality; one comes to know God through this love, and by living by the Sunnah one lives in constant remembrance of God[8].

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 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 sunna 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 Sunna

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 Sunna. Many of these sunna 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).

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 Qur'an and the wisdom behind it to the people; it is not just to relate the verses of the Qur'an 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 Qur'an alone argument is that Muhammad is not to be worshipped or deified and that his role is to deliver the Qur'an, with comprehensive explanation and guidelines on how to live in the Qur'anic guidelines which have been preserved in Sunnah.

See also


  1. Sunnah, Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement
  2. Goldziher, Ignác. Introduction to Islamic theology and law, page 231. Princeton, N.J: Princeton UP, 1981.
  3. Nasr, Seyyed H. "Sunnah and Hadith." World Spirituality: An Encyclopedia History of the Religious Quest. 19 vols. New York: Crossroad. 97-109.
  4. Nasr, Seyyed H. "Sunnah and Hadith". World Spirituality: An Encyclopedia History of the Religious Quest. 19 vols. New York: Crossroad. 97–109.
  5. Nasr,S. Islamic Studies.Beirut.Seyyed Hossein Nasr.1967.
  6. Okumus, Fatih. "The Prophet As Example." Studies in Inter religious Dialogue 18 (2008): 82-95. Religion Index. Ebsco. Thomas Tredway Library, Rock Island, IL.
  7. Nasr, Seyyed H. "Sunnah and Hadith." World Spirituality: An Encyclopedia History of the Religious Quest. 19 vols. New York: Crossroad. 97-109.
  8. Nasr, Seyyed H. "Sunnah and Hadith." World Spirituality: An Encyclopedia History of the Religious Quest. 19 vols. New York: Crossroad. 97-109.

Further reading

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

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