Sunnah linguistically means a way, course, practice, norm, tradition or the like. Thus, it can be either a way that is praiseworthy or blameworthy. The Prophet s.a.w. spoke of this lexical meaning of Sunnah in his saying:
مَنْ سَنَّ سُنَّةً حَسَنَةً فَعُمِلَ بِهَا بَعْدَهُ كَانَ لَهُ أَجْرُهَا وَمِثْلُ أُجُورِهِمْ مِنْ غَيْرِ أَنْ يَنْقُصَ مِنْ أُجُورِهِمْ شَيْئًا وَمَنْ سَنَّ سُنَّةً سَيِّئَةً فَعُمِلَ بِهَا بَعْدَهُ كَانَ عَلَيْهِ وِزْرُهُ وَمِثْلُ أَوْزَارِهِمْ مِنْ غَيْرِ أَنْ يَنْقُصَ مِنْ أَوْزَارِهِمْ شَيْئًا
“Whoever introduces a good practice (sunnah) that is followed after him, will have a reward for that and the equivalent of their reward, without that detracting from their reward in the slightest. Whoever introduces an evil practice that is followed after him, will bear the burden of sin for that and the equivalent of their burden of sin, without that detracting from their burden in the slightest.”
(Sunan Ibn Majah)
Sunnah, as a term, has a few definitions based on different groups of Muslim scholars depending on their respective disciplines. Below are three definitions of the Sunnah according to the following groups:
According to them, Sunnah is what has been passed down from Prophet Muhammad’s statements, actions, tacit approvals, manners, or physical characteristics, regardless of whether it was before or after he was appointed as a prophet. Their definition includes that of the Saḥābah (companions of the Prophet s.a.w.) or the Tabi‘ūn (the next generation who followed the Saḥābah).
The fuqahā’ or jurists define Sunnah as a recommended act. A person will be rewarded if he or she performs it and will not be punished if he or she does not perform it. There are other terms used for this specific meaning, such as mustahabb, mandūb, taṭawwu‘ and nāfilah, each of which may have a slightly different connotation in some cases. These scholars study the Prophet’s traditions to identify the religious rulings of the actions; what is wājib (compulsory), mustahabb (commendable), ḥarām (prohibited) and makrūh (discouraged).
These scholars define Sunnah as what is narrated from the Prophet s.a.w. in terms of his sayings, actions and approvals that can be used as evidence for a rule in Islamic law. The uṣūliyyun study the Prophet’s traditions to extract legal maxims for the Mujtahidūn (scholars who are qualified to exercise ijtihād or independent reasoning in the interpretation of Islamic Law) to conceptually guide the masses in living their ever-changing life.
There are definitely some similarities and distinctions in the definitions. To put it simply, Sunnah is attributed to the Prophet s.a.w, regardless of whether it is the religious ruling or a commendable act, depending on the context of usage. In any given text, understanding the definitions of Sunnah from the different disciplines could help us avoid semantic confusion, especially in determining aḥkām (rulings).
Looking at the definitions above, you will find the Sunnah of the Prophets s.a.w. can come in different forms when referring to his way of life. From another perspective, it addresses all aspects of the human life holistically. Below are the types and examples of his Sunnah:
This is the verbal aspect of his Sunnah such as establishing an Islamic ruling, a piece of advice or guidance. For instance, the Prophet s.a.w. said:
إِنَّ مِنْ خِيَارِكُمْ أَحْسَنُكُمْ أَخْلَاقاً
“The best of you is the best among you in conduct.”
For this type of Sunnah, the Prophet’s companions r.a. would normally describe how the Prophet s.a.w. did things. For example, his wife, Aisyah r.a. described the Prophet’s routine after he had prayed the Sunnah prayer before the Subuh prayer:
كَانَ النَّبِيُّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ إِذَا صَلَّى رَكْعَتَيِ الْفَجْرِ اضْطَجَعَ عَلَى شقِّهِ الْأَيْمَنِ
“When the Prophet prayed the two raka'ats of the Fajr prayer (Sunnah prayer beforeSubuh), he lay down on his right side.”
This refers to any actions or sayings of the companions r.a. that were silently or verbally approved by the Prophet s.a.w.
In a Hadith reported by Ibn Abbas r.a, the Prophet s.a.w. was served a roasted lizard (Dhab). Rasulullah s.a.w. stretched his hand toward it. One of the women who was in Maimuna's house said, "Tell Rasulullah s.a.w. what he intends to eat." Someone said, "It is a lizard, Rasulullah." He withdrew his hand. I asked: “O Rasulullah, is it forbidden?”
He said: “No. It is not found in the land of my people, and I feel that I have no liking for it”. Khalid said: I then chewed and ate it while Rasulullah s.a.w. was looking (at me).
There are various narrations describing the Prophet’s qualities. For example, the Prophet’s companion, Abu Sa’īd al-Khudhrī r.a, said:
كَانَ النَّبِيُّ ﷺ أَشَدَّ حَيَاءً مِنَ الْعَذْرَاءِ فِي خِدْرِهَا. فَإِذَا رَأَى شَيْئًا يَكْرَهُهُ عَرَفْنَاهُ فِي وَجْهِهِ
“The Prophet s.a.w. was more shy than a virgin in her separate room. And if he saw a thing which he disliked, we would recognize that (feeling) in his face.”
Muslim scholars discussed lengthily about the critical roles of Sunnah. In brief, below are some reasons for its importance in our tradition:
The reason why Sunnah is regarded as highly as the divine revelation that provides guidance to the community is because Allah s.w.t. Himself says in the Quran regarding the sayings of the Prophet s.a.w:
وَمَا يَنطِقُ عَنِ ٱلْهَوَىٰٓ. إِنْ هُوَ إِلَّا وَحْىٌ يُوحَىٰ
“Nor does he speak of his own whims. It is only a revelation sent down (to him).”
(Surah An-Najm, 53:3-4)
Muslim scholars unanimously agree that Sunnah is one of the references for the Islamic law. This status of the Sunnah is reflected in a Hadith. When the Prophet s.a.w. asked Muaz ibn Jabal r.a. to be deployed to Yemen and inform the people about Islam, the Prophet s.a.w. asked him:
كَيْفَ تَقْضِي فَقَالَ أَقْضِي بِمَا فِي كِتَابِ اللَّهِ . قَالَ فَإِنْ لَمْ يَكُنْ فِي كِتَابِ اللَّهِ قَالَ فَبِسُنَّةِ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم . قَالَ فَإِنْ لَمْ يَكُنْ فِي سُنَّةِ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ أَجْتَهِدُ رَأْيِي قَالَ الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ الَّذِي وَفَّقَ رَسُولَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه
How will you judge?” He said: “I will judge according to what is in Allah’s Book.” The Prophet s.a.w. asked: “If it is not in Allah’s Book?” He said: “Then with the Sunnah of Rasulullah s.a.w.” The Prophet s.a.w. asked: “If it is not in the Sunnah of Rasulullah s.a.w.?” He said: “I will give in my view (by Ijtihad - scholarly independent reasoning).” The Prophet s.a.w. said: “All praise is due to Allah, the One Who made the messenger of Rasulullah suitable.”
For instance, the prohibition of usury or ribā. In the Quran, Allah s.w.t. says:
يَٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ لَا تَأْكُلُواْ ٱلرِّبَوٰٓاْ أَضْعَٰفًا مُّضَٰعَفَةً
“O believers! Do not consume Ribā, multiplying it many times over.”
(Surah Ali ‘Imran, 3:130)
This Quranic verse is supported by the Prophet’s saying:
لاَ تَبِيعُوا الدِّينَارَ بِالدِّينَارَيْنِ وَلاَ الدِّرْهَمَ بِالدِّرْهَمَيْنِ
“Do not sell a dinar for two dinars and one dirham for two dirhams.”
The Sunnah of the Prophet s.a.w. seeks to interpret and explain some Quranic verses or present the practicality of some injunctions. Allah s.w.t. emphasises this particular function of the Sunnah
وَأَنزَلْنَا إِلَيْكَ ٱلذِّكْرَ لِتُبَيِّنَ لِلنَّاسِ مَا نُزِّلَ إِلَيْهِمْ وَلَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ
“And We have sent down to you (O Prophet) the Reminder, so that you may explain to people what has been revealed for them, and perhaps they will reflect.”
(Sunnah An-Nahl, 16:44)
In this regard, the Sunnah also clarifies exceptions to some general injunctions in the Quran such as the impermissibility of consuming dead animals and blood. Allah s.w.t. says in the Quran:
إِنَّمَا حَرَّمَ عَلَيْكُمُ ٱلْمَيْتَةَ وَٱلدَّمَ وَلَحْمَ ٱلْخِنزِيرِ وَمَآ أُهِلَّ بِهِۦ لِغَيْرِ ٱللَّهِ ۖ فَمَنِ ٱضْطُرَّ غَيْرَ بَاغٍۢ وَلَا عَادٍۢ فَلَآ إِثْمَ عَلَيْهِ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ
“He has only forbidden you (to eat) carrion (dead animals), blood, swine and what is slaughtered in the name of any other than Allah. But if someone is compelled by necessity—neither driven by desire nor exceeding immediate need—they will not be sinful. Surely Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”
(Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:173)
The Prophet s.a.w. described the exception for consuming dead animals and blood in his saying:
أُحِلَّتْ لَنَا مَيْتَتَانِ وَدَمَانِ فَأَمَّا الْمَيْتَتَانِ فَالْحُوتُ وَالْجَرَادُ وَأَمَّا الدَّمَانِ فَالْكَبِدُ وَالطِّحَالُ
“Two kinds of dead meat and two kinds of blood have been permitted to us. The two kinds of dead meat are fish and locusts, and the two kinds of blood are the liver and spleen.”
(Sunan Ibn Majah)
Understanding the important roles of Sunnah will let us understand why we still need it despite having the impeccable Quran. One must never disregard the Sunnah as the Quran explicitly highlights the obligation to comply with it:
وَأَطِيعُوا اللَّهَ وَالرَّسُولَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُرْحَمُونَ
“Obey Allah and the Messenger, so you may be shown mercy.”
(Surah Ali Imran, 3:132)
Imam al-Awza‘ī said: “The Quran is in need of the Sunnah more than the Sunnah in need of the Quran.” As one of the essential functions of the Sunnah is to elaborate some content of the Quran, including its practical application, it is inconceivable that the Quran is the only source that clarifies every decreed obligation in detail.
As the Quran, in its perfectly divine manner, provides generic descriptions at times, many of our daily routines, like how to perform the five obligatory prayers, consuming halal food and drinks, making business transactions, social interactions, and fulfilling family needs, are guided by the Sunnah.
Many emerging issues in the modern world require the attention of Muslim scholars to further develop guidance and attempt to address these issues objectively. As such, scholars will revisit and adequately articulate the existing sources, which include the Sunnah of the Prophet s.a.w. to seek possible solutions.
For instance, when COVID-19 struck and affected many social activities, including congregational prayers at mosques, the Sunnah became one of the main references to establish a guideline in light of the pandemic. An example would be:
لَا يُورِدَنَّ مُمْرِضٌ عَلَى مُصِحٍّ
“Do not place a sickly patient with a healthy person.”
And the Hadith:
إِذَا سَمِعْتُمْ بِهِ بِأَرْضٍ فَلاَ تَقْدَمُوا عَلَيْهِ وَإِذَا وَقَعَ بِأَرْضٍ وَأَنْتُمْ بِهَا فَلاَ تَخْرُجُوا فِرَارًا مِنْهُ
“If you hear that a land has a plague in it, do not go forward to it. If it comes upon a land which you are in, do not depart from it”
The Prophetic guidance allows us to understand that acts of worship or any form of religious commitment should definitely take other important factors into account and not just to particularly focus on fulfilling them.
Apart from this matter, there are many instances of contemporary and complex issues which require us to refer to the scholars’ guidance to address them effectively. Do seek clarification from experts and knowledgeable sources, as commanded by Allah s.w.t:
فَسْـَٔلُوٓا۟ أَهْلَ ٱلذِّكْرِ إِن كُنتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ
“Therefore, ask those who are more learned if you do not know.”
(Surah an-Nahl, 16:43)
Referring to scholars will help us avoid misconceptions and misunderstandings of Islamic law and paradigm in any given circumstance. This includes the improper tendency to read or be dependent on a specific Prophetic saying and ignoring or overlooking other potentially related Prophetic traditions. This could, unfortunately, contribute to confusion or a different ruling altogether.
And Allah knows best
1. Al-Sunnah al-Nabawiyyah wa Ahammiyatuhā wa Wājib al-Muslimīn Naḥwahā by Sayyid Abd al-Mājid al-Ghawrī.
2. The Authority and Importance of the Sunnah by Jamaal al-Din M. Zarabozo.