Concepts. What is Sunnah?

Among all Muslims worldwide these concepts are agreed upon. Although we all agree on the Qur’an and these basics, building past the very basic foundations of “Sunnah” (which also overlap historical events) is where the Sunni and Shi’a divide begins to take shape. I’m going to keep this simple so I don’t make this article too large or off topic. In an upcoming article I’m going to explain about the division in historical events, it’s effect on the followers of the religion and modern times.

There are three main usages of the word “Sunnah” among Muslims:

  1. “The Way” – In the earliest description of Jesus’ followers, before Paul’s mission to the Pagans where they were first called “Christians” in a derogatory sense, the movement of the original disciples of Jesus who were in the Synagogues was known as “the Way.” (Acts 9:2). Muslims carry on this tradition and description in the word “as-Sunnah” which means “the Way.” When we refer to the Sunnah (unless otherwise ascribed to another Prophet or Jesus Christ) we are generally referring to “the Way” of the Prophet Muhammad. The Sunnah in this sense refers to the things he is reported to have said, did or approved of in hadith. In the same way that we use it for the Prophet Muhammad, we can also apply this to others, such as the “Sunnah of Jesus Christ” or “the Way of Jesus Christ” based on what we know of the things he said, did or approved. We can apply the usage to “the Way” of any of the other Prophets or Messengers when refering to events in their lives.
  2. Reference – Sunnah is a reference to the collective recordings of Hadith. For example, the “Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad” says, “Messenger of Allah [Muhammad] said, ‘When any of you is invited to a meal, he should accept the invitation. If he is observing Sawm (fasting), he should supplicate for the betterment of the host and if he is not fasting, he should eat.’ (Sahih Muslim)” So, as an example, Muslims would say, “The ‘Sunnah says,’ it is better for us not to turn down an invite to a meal when invited.” Sunnah is a reference to any hadith in any of the recorded volumes.
  3. Legal Term – Sunnah is also a “legal definition” used by the ‘Uleema (Scholars/Judges) to classify if something is recommended for one’s own good. Legal classifications is where we get our concept of what is “sin” against God, ourselves, fellow humans, animals, planet, etc. In this case, there is 5 categorizations in Shari’ah:
  • Fardh (Mandatory; Get God’s blessing for doing and His punishment for not doing)
  • Sunnah (Recommended; Get God’s blessing for doing and nothing for not doing)
  • Mubah (Permissible; Don’t get God’s blessing for doing and don’t get his punishment for not doing)
  • Makruh (Strongly disliked though technically permitted; Don’t get God’s blessing for doing but get His blessing for NOT doing)
  • Haram (Forbidden; Get God’s punishment for doing and get His blessing for NOT doing)

The concept of Sunnah is integral to both sects of Islam, Sunni and Shi’a, as it guides us to better enlightenment by the example of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, whom we believe was sent by God as the “Seal” of “the Way” of the Prophet’s and Messengers and their Revelations before him.

Article by BrJimC © 2016


Secondary (or supplemental) books. What are hadith?

Similar to Judaism which has a core book (the Torah) and secondary oral traditions (the Talmud), Islam has a core book (Qur’an) and a recorded “oral tradition” that we call “ah-Hadith.” The Talmud and Hadith have been both recorded in many hundreds of volumes and both serve to supplement understanding of their respective core books (Torah and Qur’an) and build upon the foundation of religious practice.

The hadith are the “secondary source” after the Qur’an to which Muslims refer in order to supplement their faith, interpret Islamic Shari’ah or to form opinions on interpretation of our religion. They are a collection of writings that were passed down person to person by “word of mouth over 200-300 years” until they were compiled and written into central books by various scholars who collected them. We call this ‘isnad‘ (chain of narration) and this tells us that the people who narrated the hadith are trustworthy or not. Isnad does not tell us that what was recorded in the hadith is definitively what was said or happened. Hadith are basically hearsay evidence and have many classifications of authenticity of isnad, not accuracy of content. This is why the hadith are a secondary source that supplement the Qur’an. Keep in mind that although Muslims believe in the Bible (New Testament), we don’t rely on it for our belief system partly for the reason that the earliest writings are from 132AD (in Aramaic) and wasn’t canonized until 325AD (in Greek). More precisely, it has no isnad (chain of narration). That’s roughly 100 to over 300 years after Jesus. The Prophet never saw our books of hadith and Jesus never saw the Bible to authorize their authenticity. These books of hadith are commonly named after the scholars that compiled them, such as “Imam Bukhari, Imam Muslim or Imam Abu Dawud.” There are collectively hundreds of volumes.

Unlike the Qur’an, the hadith were dictated by a chain of ordinary individuals about the things the Prophet Muhammad supposedly said (qawl), did (fi’l) or approved (taqrir). The Prophet Muhammad “never authorized or saw” these compilations or recordings. They were not preserved with the same integrity of the Qur’an. The hadith have errors, contradictions and are NOT considered “infallible.” The Qur’an is the primary authoritative source of all things in Islam. The hadith are secondary to supplement or clarify the Qur’an and subordinate to it.

Hadith are categorized based on what we call “Isnad” or trustworthiness of the “chain of narrators.” The three categorizations are:

  1. Sahih (Strong; Narrators were known to be reputable)
  2. Hasan (Good; Narrators may be questionable)
  3. Da’if (Weak; Serious problems with narrators or method of transmission)

It is important to note that a “Strong” narration may still have inaccuracies or have different narrations of the same event described in Islamic history. The categorization only speaks to the reputations of the individuals in the “chain” over generations or the method of transmission, were the individuals transmitting known to be liars, cheats, abusers or trustworthy people? Also, as we know, even a story told by the most trustworthy people in a chain of many individuals can come out on the other side of the chain a very different story than when it began.

In order to sort these out, we have to study the event in-depth according to hundreds of other hadiths, Qur’an and Islamic history to determine the outcome. There is no room for “clever slogans”, rash interpretations or assumptions that many deviant Muslims or anti-Islam proponents try to assert. It is why we call the study of hadith, “The Science of Hadith.” It takes serious long term study and every hadith that remotely can speak to a situation must be evaluated in light of each other.

Divisions among Muslims have risen over the existence of volumes of hadith, interpretations of hadith and even ascribed authors or recorders of hadith. Entire schools of thought have been formed and draw on some hadith more than others. The Sunni and Shi’a historical divide has been greatly amplified over the existence and interpretations of hadith.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about hadith is that Qur’an is more authoritative. If there is not a direct Qur’anic reference to cross reference and unequivocally confirm the hadith then the hadith holds less authority.

An example of hadith that would hold a great degree of authority in a valid interpretation of Islam can be seen in the Qur’anic verse that tells Muslims to establish formal prayers. The Qur’an does not tell us how to do that.

“Verily, I am Allah: There is no god but I: So serve thou Me (only), and establish regular prayer for celebrating My praise.” (Qur’an 20:14)

So, we have to refer to hadiths that directly describes the topic in order to learn how. Qur’an makes the mandate, the hadith explains the mandate.

Article by BrJimC © 2016