The Meaning of Sunna
by Sh. G. F. Haddad

"The Sunna in Islam is more rare and precious
than Islam is rare and precious among the rest of the faiths."
Abu Bakr ibn ʿAyyash

"Sunna means the path that is trodden ( al-tarīq al-maslūk ), which entails holding fast to whatever the Prophet ﷺ and his rightly-guided successors held of doctrines, deeds, and sayings. This is the perfect and complete Sunna. That is why the Salaf of old refrained from applying the name of Sunna to anything that fell short of this."
Ibn Rajab

The Sunna is wisdom and wisdom is to place each thing in its right context.
Ismaʿil al-Ansari

The Arabic word sunna lexically means "road" or "practice." In the language of the Prophet ﷺ and the Companions it denotes the whole of licit [lawful] practices followed in the Religion (dīn), particularly the pristine (hanīf) path of Prophets, whether pertaining to belief, religious and social practice, or ethics generally speaking.

In its technical sense sunna has three meanings. In hadith terminology it denotes any saying (qawl), action (fi'l), approval (taqrīr), or attribute (sifa), whether physical (khilqiyya) or moral (khuluqiyya) ascribed to (udīfa ila) the Prophet ﷺ, whether before or after the beginning of his prophethood.1 Thus the "sciences of the Sunna" (ʿulūm al-Sunna) refer to the biography of the Prophet ﷺ (al-sīra), the chronicle of his battles (al-maghāzī), his everyday sayings and acts or "ways" (sunan), his personal and moral qualities (al-shamā'il), and the host of the ancillary [1] hadīth sciences such as the circumstances of occurrence (asbāb al-wurūd), knowledge of the abrogating and abrogated hadīth, difficult words (gharīb al-hadīth), narrator criticism (al-jarh wal-taʿdīl), narrator biographies (al-rijāl), etc., as discussed in great detail in the authoritative books of al-Khatīb al-Baghdādī.

This meaning is used in contradistinction to the Qur'an in expressions such as "Qur'an and Sunna" and applies in the usage of hadith scholars.

Imām Ahmad raDiy-Allahu-anhu.gif said: "The Sunna in our definition consists in the reports transmitted from the Messenger of Allah ﷺ, and the Sunna is the commentary (tafsīr) of the Qur'ān and contains its directions (dalā'il)."

The early Sunnī Masters such as Abū Hanīfa, al-Humaydī, Ibn Abī ʿāsim, Abū Dāwūd, and Abū Nasr al-Marwazī also used the term "the Sunna" in the narrow sense to refer to Sunnī Doctrine as opposed to the creeds of non-Sunnī sects.

In the terminology of usul al-fiqh or principles of jurisprudence, sunna denotes a saying (qawl), action (fiʿl) or approval (taqrīr) related from (nuqila ʿan) the Prophet ﷺ or issuing (sadara) from him other than the Qur'an.

In the terminology of fiqh or jurisprudence, sunna denotes whatever is firmly established (thabata) as called for (matlub) in the Religion on the basis of a legal proof (dalīl sharʿī) but without being obligatory, the continued abandonment of which constitutes disregard (istikhfāf) of the Religion - also sin (ithm) according to some jurists - and incurs blame (lawm, ʿitab, tadlīl) - also punishment (ʿuqūba) according to some jurists.2 However, some jurists have made a distinction between what they called "Emphasized Sunna" (Sunna mu'akkada) or "Sunna of Guidance" (Sunna al-huda), such as what the Prophet ﷺ ordered or emphasized in word or in deed, and other types of Sunna considered less binding in their legal status, such as what they called "Non-Emphasized Sunna" (Sunna ghayr mu'akkada) or "Sunna of Habit" (Sunna al-ʿāda).

The above jurisprudential meanings of Sunna are used in contradistinction to the other four of the five legal categories for human actions - fard (obligatory), sunna, mubah (indifferent), makruh (disliked), haram (prohibited) - and applies in the usage of jurists from the second Hijri century onwards. However, the jurists have stressed that the basis for all acts of worship categorized as sunna is "obligatoriness" not "permissiveness" (al-asl fī al-sunna al-wujūb lā al-ibāha). Sunna is thus defined as the strongest of the following near-synonymous categories:

"praiseworthy" (mandūb)
"desirable" (mustahabb)
"voluntary" (tatawwuʿ)
"refinement" (adab)
"obedience" (tāʿa)
"supererogatory" (nafl)
"drawing near" (qurba)
"recommended" (rāghība, murghab fīh)
"excellent" (hasan)
"excellence" (ihsān)
"meritorious" (fadīla)
"best" (afdal).

Al-Dhahabī relates from Ishaq ibn Rahuyah the saying: "If al-Thawri, al-Awzaʿi, and Mālik concur on a given matter, that matter is a Sunna." Al-Dhahabī comments:

Rather, the Sunna is whatever the Prophet ﷺ made Sunna, and the rightly-guided Caliphs after him. As for Consensus (ijmaʿ), it is whatever the ulama of the Community both early and late have unanimously agreed upon, through either assumed (zannī) or tacit (sukutī) agreement. Whoever deviates from such consensus among the Successors or their successors, it is tolerated for him alone. As for those who deviate from the three above-named imams, then such is not named a deviation from Consensus, nor from the Sunna. All that Ishaq meant was that if they concur on a given matter then it is most probably correct, just as we say, today, that it is nearly impossible to find the truth outside of what the Four Imams of scholarly endeavor agreed upon. We say this at the same time as we admit that their agreement on a given matter does not dictate the consensus of the Community, but we refrain from asserting, in relation to a matter upon which they all agreed, that the correct position is otherwise.3

In the largest sense, "Sunna" does denote the true knowledge and practice of the Religion and is antonymous with "innovation" (bidʿa), as in the expression "People of the Sunna" or Sunnis (Ahl al-Sunna). Al-Junayd said: "The way to Allah is closed except to those who follow the traces of the Prophet ﷺ and adhere to his Sunna. Allah (swt) said: { Verily in the Messenger of Allah you have an good exemplar for him who hopes in Allah and the last Day and remembers Allah much.} Sura 33:21"

1 See al-Siba'i, Al-Sunna wa Makanatuha fi al-Tashri' al-Islami (p.47).
2 See al-Lucknawi, Tuhfa al-Abrar, chapter entitled "The Legal Status of the Emphasized Sunna and of its Abandonment"
(Hukm al-Sunna al-Mu'akkada wa Tarkiha) (p. 87-92).
3 Al-Dhahabī, Siyar A'lam al-Nubala' (1997 ed. 7:92).

GF Haddad ©
[sri 1999/06/18 + Sunna Notes Volume 2 with complete text]

The excellent books 'Sunna Notes' Volumes 1 and 2
by Dr. Gibril Fouad Haddad can be purchased at:

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latest update: 2019-09-13


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