CATEGORIES OF THE SUNNA
The Sunna is divided
into three categories:
Sunna or the words of God’s Messenger
The first category of
the Sunna consists in the blessed words of God’s Messenger, which provide a
basis for many religious commandments. To cite a few examples:
Our Prophet, upon
him be peace and blessings, decreed:
No bequest to the
That is, a man
can bequeath a certain, small portion of his wealth before his death but
he cannot bequeath at all to his heirs since they will naturally inherit
the large portion of his wealth. A bequest can be made to the poor or
some social institutions in the service of people.
Messenger has many concise sayings which provided a basis for several
legal rulings. Among them, the following is one of the basic principles
of Islamic jurisprudence:
No harming and
no returning harm for harm.2
That is, no one
may do harm to any other, nor may he retaliate against anyone by doing
him harm; he may not return ill treatment for ill treatment.
enjoins alms-giving, but it does not set out for us what kind and what
amount of wealth, and by what measure, one must give alms. All of these
were established by the Sunna. For example, God’s Messenger, upon him
be peace and blessings, declared:
A tenth will be
given (out of the crops grown in the fields) watered by rain or
rivers; but half of a tenth (out of those grown in the fields) watered
by man himself (by digging wells or building canals or carrying water
on animals, etc.)3
whether one could do ritual ablution (wudu’) with sea-water, God’s
Messenger gave the following answer, which has provided a basis for many
A sea is that
of which the water is clean and the dead animals are lawful to eat.4
Quran forbids eating the meat of animals which have died without
being slaughtered according to Islamic rules. The Sunna, however
restricts this ‘general’ rule (commandment) by allowing as food the
flesh of sea creatures that have died in water.
Practical Sunna or
the practices of God’s Messenger
The Qur’an usually
lays down general rules and principles and does not enter into details or
particulars. For example, it enjoins prayer and pilgrimage but does not
describe in detail how to do the prayer or pilgrimage. God’s Messenger,
taught by God through inspiration or through the archangel Gabriel, showed in
practice how to perform all the religious commandments. Thus he set, through
his life, a unique example to be followed by all Muslims. For example, he led
the daily prayers before his Companions five times a day and ordered them:
Perform the prayer the way you see me praying.5
The Sunna based on
the approvals of God’s Messenger
God’s Messenger, upon
him be peace and blessings, corrected the mistakes of his Companions, but not
by specifying the one who did the mistake; he never exposed anyone publicly.
Instead, he would usually climb the pulpit and warn: What ails the people that
somebody does that?6 If, on the other hand, he saw in his Companions something
agreeable, he showed his approval tacitly, i.e. by keeping silent, or in some
For example, once two
Companions could not find water in the desert to do wudu’ before the
prescribed prayer and did the ritual ablution with sand (tayammum). However,
when they came across some water some while later within the time of the same
prayer, one of them did wudu’ and re-did the prayer while the other did not.
When they referred the matter to God’s Messenger later, the Messenger
responded to the one who had not repeated the prayer: You acted in accordance
with the Sunna. Then, he turned to the other and said: For you, there is
To cite another
example, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, ordered a march
upon Banu Qurayza immediately after the Battle of the Trench and announced:
Hurry up! We will perform the afternoon prayer there! Some of the Companions,
concluding that they should be quick to reach the land of Banu Qurayza and
pray there, started out without delay. Others understood the order to mean
that they should make haste to arrive in Banu Qurayza’s territory only and
that they could perform the prayer before departure. God’s Messenger
approved the actions of both groups.8
1. I. Ma’ja, “Wasaya,” 6;
Tirmidhi, “Wasaya,” 5.
2. I. Hanbal, Musnad, 1.313.
3. Tirmidhi, “Zakat,” 14;
Bukhari, “Zakat,” 55.
4. Abu Dawud, “Tahara,” 41;
Tirmidhi, “Tahara,” 52; Nasa’i, “Tahara,” 47.
5. Bukhari, “Adhan,” 18; I.
6. Bukhari, “Salat,” 70;
Muslim, “Nikah,” 5.
7. Darimi, “Tahara,” 65; Abu
Dawud, “Tahara,” 126.
8. Darimi, “Maghazi,” 30,