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THE MEANING OF THE SUNNA

Sunna literally means ‘a conduct and a path good or evil to be followed’. It is used, in its literal meaning, in the following hadith:

The one who establishes a good path in Islam, gets the reward of those who follow it without any decrease in their reward. Another one who establishes an evil path in Islam is burdened with the sins of those who follow it without any decrease in their burden.1

In its terminological meaning, Sunna has different connotations according to each group of the Traditionists, methodologists and jurists. According to the Traditionists, it includes everything having some bearing on or relation with religious commandments, reported from God’s Messenger and categorized, according to the Hanafis (the followers of Abu Hanifa), as obligations, necessities, practices particular to or encouraged by the Prophet himself, recommended and desirable.

The methodologists take the Sunna as every word, deed and approval of God’s Messenger. That is, according to them, the Sunna means the sayings and acts of God’s Messenger himself, as well as those acts or sayings he approved in what he witnessed in his Companions.

Jurists approach the Sunna as the opposite of innovation in religion (bid‘a) and is, according to them, a synonym of Hadith (Tradition), it is used for the words, deeds and approvals of the Prophet which provide a basis for legislation and categorization of people’s actions.

Hadith, derived from the word haddatha, to inform, means, literally, tiding or information. It came, over time, to mean every word, deed and approval ascribed to God’s Messenger. Ibn Hajar says: ‘What is meant by Hadith in the language of the Shari‘a is everything related to God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings.’

Some scholars of fine discernment distinguish Hadith as that which is not Divine, not eternal or without beginning in time. This is the fine line which separates Hadith from the Quran: as against the Quran which is Divine and eternal, Hadith connotes something coming into existence at a point in time. God’s Messenger himself distinguishes his sayings from the Quran, as can be understood from the following hadith:

It is two things only, nothing else: the Word and guidance. The best word is the Word of God and the best guidance is the guidance of Muhammad.2

 

1. Muslim, “Zakat,” 69; Ibn Ma’ja, “Muqaddima,” 203.

2. I. Ma’ja, “Muqaddima,” 7.


Recommended Reading:
The categories of the Sunna

Last Updated on August 06, 2000

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