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Title: Sunnah  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Ahmadiyya, Sharia, Glossary of Islam, Schools of Islamic theology, Islam
Collection: Islamic Terminology
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Sunnah is the way of life prescribed as normative for Muslims on the basis of the teachings and practices of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and interpretations of the Quran. The word sunnah (سنة , plural سنن sunan , Arabic) is derived from the root (سن Arabic), meaning smooth and easy flow or direct flow path. The word literally means a clear and well trodden path. In the discussion of the sources of religion, sunnah denotes the practices of Muhammad that he taught and practically instituted as a teacher of the sharī‘ah and the best exemplar.[1] According to Muslim belief, this practice is to be adhered to in fulfilling the divine injunctions, carrying out religious rites, and moulding life in accord with the will of God. Instituting these practices was, as the Quran states, a part of Muhammad's responsibility as a Messenger of Allah. (Quran 3:164, 33:21).

The sunnah of Muhammad includes his specific words, habits, practices, and silent approvals:[2] it is significant because it addresses ways of life dealing with friends, family and government.[2] Recording the sunnah was an Arabian tradition and, once people converted to Islam, they brought this custom to their religion.[3] The sunnah is a source of Islamic law, second only to the Quran. The term "Sunni" denotes those who claim to practice these usages, as part of the Ummah.


  • Etymology 1
  • Sunnah and hadith 2
  • Sunnah and Islam 3
  • Alternative views on Sunnah 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


Sunnah (سنة , plural سنن sunan ) is an Arabic word that means "habit" or "usual practice".[4] Sunnis are also referred to as Ahl as-Sunnah wa'l-Jamā'ah ("people of the tradition and the community (of Muhammad)") or Ahl as-Sunnah for short.

Sunnah and hadith

In the context of biographical records of Muhammad, sunnah often stands synonymous with hadith since most of the personality traits of Muhammad are known from descriptions of him, his sayings and his actions after becoming a prophet at the age of forty. Sunnah, which consists of what Muhammad believed, implied, or tacitly approved, was recorded by his companions in hadith. Allegiance to the tribal sunnah had been partially replaced by submission to a new universal authority and the sense of brotherhood among Muslims.[5]

Early Sunni scholars often considered sunnah equivalent to the biography of Muhammed (sira) as the hadith which was then poorly validated while contemporary accounts of Muhammad's life were better known. As the hadith came to be better documented and the scholars who validated them gained prestige, the sunnah came often to be known mostly through the hadith, especially as variant or fictional biographies of Muhammad spread.

How far hadith contributes to sunnah is disputed and highly dependent on context. Classical Islam often equates the sunnah with the hadith. Scholars who studied the narrations according to their context (matn) as well as their transmission (isnad) in order to discriminate between them were influential in the development of early Muslim philosophy. In the context of sharia, Imam Malik and the Hanafi scholars are assumed to have differentiated between the two: for example Imam Malik is said to have rejected some traditions that reached him because, according to him, they were against the "established practice of the people of Medina".

Sunnah and Islam

Passages in the Qur'an command that the Prophet be followed, such as 3:32, "Obey God and His messenger".[6] For Muslims the imitation of Muhammad helps one to know and be loved by God: one lives in constant remembrance of God.[2]

Shi'a Muslims do not use the six major hadith collections followed by the Sunni. Instead, their primary collections were written by three authors known as the 'Three Muhammads'.[7] They are: Kitab al-Kafi by Muhammad ibn Ya'qub al-Kulayni al-Razi (329 AH), Man la yahduruhu al-Faqih by Muhammad ibn Babuya and Al-Tahdhib and Al-Istibsar both by Shaykh Muhammad Tusi. Unlike Akhbari Twelver Shi'a, Usuli Twelver Shi'a scholars do not believe that everything in the four major books is authentic. In Shia hadith one often finds sermons attributed to Ali in The Four Books or in the Nahj al-Balagha.

Sunni traditional Muslims believe that the sunnah is justified by verses such as "A similar (favour have ye already received) in that We have sent among you a Messenger of your own, rehearsing to you Our Signs, and sanctifying you, and instructing you in Scripture and Wisdom, and in new knowledge.(2:151) The verse "Verily in the messenger of God you have a good example for him who looks unto God and the Last Day and remembers God much" (33:21) further emphasizes that Muhammad's mission is to teach and exemplify the Qur'an, not just to relate its verses and leave. Muhammad was not to be worshipped or deified but his role was to deliver the Qur'an with comprehensive explanations of how to live according to the Qur'anic guidelines preserved in Sunnah. The teachings of "wisdom" have been declared to be a function of Muhammad along with the teachings of the scripture.[8]

For a better understanding of "wisdom" (hikmah), one can refer to the Quran itself. For example, verse 4:113 states; "God reveals the Book (i.e. the books of revealed religion, especially the Qur'an) to you, and wisdom, and teaches you that which you did not know. The grace of God towards you has been very great". Verse 2:231 states; "And remember God's grace upon you, and that which He has revealed unto you of Scripture and wisdom whereby He exhorts you". Verse 33:34 states, "And bear in mind which is recited in your houses of the revelations of God and of wisdom".

Some have said that "wisdom" here is simply another name for sunnah. Therefore, along with divine revelation the sunnah was directly taught by God. Modern Sunni scholars are beginning to examine both the sira and the hadith in order to justify modifications to jurisprudence (fiqh). The sunna, in one form or another, would retain its central role in providing a moral example and ethical guidance.

Alternative views on Sunnah

According to the view of some Sufi Muslims who incorporate both the outer and inner reality of Prophet Muhammad, the deeper and true Sunnah are the noble characteristics and inner state of Prophet Muhammad. To them the Prophet's attitude, his piety, the quality of his character constitute the truer and deeper aspect of what it means by Sunnah in Islam, rather than the external aspects alone.[9] They argue that the external customs of the Prophet loses its meaning without the inner attitude and also many Sunnah are simply custom of the Arabs, not something that is unique to Prophet.[10] and Khuluqin Azim or 'Exalted Character'[11] in the Quran, real Sunnah cannot be upheld.

According to some scholars, Sunnah predates both the Quran as well as Muhammad, and is actually the tradition of the Prophets of God, specifically the tradition of Abraham. A broad form of Sunnah was already being practised by the Christians, Jews and the Arab descendants of Ismail, when Muhammad reinstituted this practice as an integral part of Islam. Both Sunnah and Quran are equally authentic and the former includes worship rituals like salat, Zakah, Hajj, fasting in Ramadan as well as customs like circumcision.[12]

See also


  1. ^  
  2. ^ a b c Nasr, Seyyed H. "Sunnah and Hadith". World Spirituality: An Encyclopedia History of the Religious Quest. 19 vols. New York: Crossroad Swag. 97–109.
  3. ^ Goldziher, Ignác (1981). Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP. p. 231.  
  4. ^ Sunnah
  5. ^ Nasr, S. (1967). Islamic Studies. Beirut: Seyyed Hossein Nasr. 
  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. ^ Momen, Moojan (1985). Introduction to Shi'i Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 174.  
  8. ^ Muhammad Manzoor Nomani "Marif al-Hadith", introductory chapter
  9. ^ Recognizing the True and Deeper Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad
  10. ^ The Quran 33:21
  11. ^ The Quran 68:4
  12. ^  

Further reading

  • Difference between Hadith and Sunnah
  • Hamza, Feras, "Sunna", in Muhammad in History, Thought, and Culture: An Encyclopedia of the Prophet of God (2 vols.), Edited by C. Fitzpatrick and A. Walker, Santa Barbara, ABC-CLIO, 2014, Vol II, pp. 610–619.
  • Musa, Aisha Y. (2008). Hadith as Scripture: Discussions on the Authority of Prophetic Traditions in Islam. New York: Palgrave.  

External links

  • The Meaning of "Sunna" in the Qur’an, Qur'anic Studies
  • Sunnah and Hadith, Center For Muslim–Jewish Engagement
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