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The Sunnah: Which Definition?
Hadith & Sunnah
Dr Farhad Shafti


This article is based on an answer that I wrote for a question regarding the definition of Sunnah. In this writing I am comparing the implications of the way that Sunnah is defined traditionally with the way that it is defined in the Farahi school of thought.

One of the most popular traditional definitions of the Sunnah is as follows:


ما نقل عن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم من قول أو فعل أو تقرير

What has been narrated from the Prophet (sws) in terms of saying (qawl), action (fi‘l) or approval (taqrîr).1


On the other hand, this is how the Sunnah is defined in the Farahi school of thought:

Those religious traditions of Prophet Ibrahim (sws) which Prophet Muhammad (sws), after revising and adding parts to them, established among his followers as religion, and reached us through the consensus of generations by their perpetual adherence to them.2


In the following paragraphs, I compare the implications of the above two definitions for Sunnah:


Implication 1

Traditional Definition: Although we know that human beings are prone to error and mistake, yet, when we make sure that the narrators of a Hadith are reliable we still have to assume that what they narrated was a word by word and an absolutely accurate transmission of the wording of the Prophet (sws) to us. This assumption of course cannot be held as a correct assumption, meaning, some of what is considered as Sunnah based on this definition, can be inaccurate or wrong.

Farahi School Definition: Since the method of transferring the Sunnah was by the practical adherence of the whole generation of Muslims to the Sunnah, therefore the possibility of making a mistake in understanding the Sunnah is zero. 


Implication 2

Traditional Definition: The Qur’an has reached us through the consensus of generations. The Sunnah (based on the above definition) has reached us through one of the most unreliable methods, that is, individual narratives. Yet we put these two sources in the same category and consider them as the two primary sources of understanding Islam. This is not a strong stance in terms of methodology.

Farahi School Definition: Both the Qur’an and the Sunnah have reached us through the same reliable method, that is, the consensus of the generations. Therefore when we put these two sources in one category as the primary sources of understanding Islam, we are methodologically consistent.


Implication 3

Traditional Definition: Although the Qur’an says that the religion is completed and that the guidance is very clear, yet, the onus of delivery of part of this religion has been put on the shoulders of very few individuals (some times a single person) in the generation of Muslims who are the narrators of Hadith. So this completion was in fact conditional.

Farahi School Definition: The Sunnah was already firmly established among the closed companions of the Prophet (sws) at the time and would naturally transfer to the rest of the people and the next generation. Therefore the completion of religion was absolute and unconditional.


Implication 4

Traditional Definition: We know that the Prophet (sws) never made a systematic arrangement to write and collect his sayings. In other words, by the above definition, God and His Prophet (sws) seem not to care much about delivering of the Sunnah in a reliable way. The same can be said about the closest companions of the Prophet (sws) who did not encourage collecting of Hadith at their time, criticized those who narrated numerous Hadiths and (at least in one occasion) even threw a collection of Hadith into the fire.

Farahi School Definition: The Prophet (sws) and the companions as well as the rest of the generations of Muslims did their best to transfer and establish the Sunnah among the next generation.


Implication 5

Traditional Definition: We know that Hadith was not completed in a systematic way for decades after the demise of the Prophet (sws) and therefore most people did not have access to the vast information we now have through the books of Hadith. This means the best generation of Muslims after the companions did not know much of what we consider today as the Sunnah.

Farahi School Definition: By their perpetual practice of the Sunnah the companions practically passed the information about the Sunnah and its content to the next generation of Muslims. At no time in the history of Islam, Muslims, overall, were ignorant about the Sunnah and its content.


Implication 6

Traditional Definition: There are very detailed acts described in the Sunnah (as defined above) like sleeping on the right side, eating with three fingers, checking inside shoes before wearing it, using miswak when entering house, etc. that have reached us through very few individuals. Basically if these individuals were not there then we would have had no ideas about these things.

Farahi School Definition: No individual alone had the responsibility of delivering the Sunnah to the rest of people. This was the responsibility of the whole generation of Muslims at a time.


Implication 7

Traditional Definition: Although Sunnah means a very clear path and normally refers to the established way of life of a person, we are practically considering every act of the Prophet (sws) to be the Sunnah, even though we know that the Prophet (sws) was at the same time a human being with his own personal preferences, style and way of managing his worldly life.

Farahi School Definition: The definition of the Sunnah is very much in line with its literal meaning, implying that those religious acts of the Prophet (sws) are Sunnah that he himself had firmly established among his companions. This way we can be sure that what falls under the Sunnah was really meant to be the Sunnah.


Implication 8

Traditional Definition: The traditional definition is in fact the same definition that we would give to the term Hadith. So basically theoretically and practically we are saying that Hadith and Sunnah are equal.

Farahi School Definition: Hadith and the Sunnah are fully distinct by definition and in practice.


Implication 9

Traditional Definition: Although Hadith is considered as the main source of understanding Sunnah, yet, in practice, many important contents of the Sunnah are learned through the perpetual adherence of all Muslims (overall) to these practices. 

Farahi School Definition: This definition is in line with the primary way that we learn the most important parts of Sunnah today, that is through the perpetual adherence of generations rather than books of Hadith.



Based on the above, it is possible to argue that common sense, rational thinking, appreciating the importance of guidance of the Almighty, appreciating the emphasis of the Qur’an on Islam as the religion of Abraham (sws) and appreciating the perpetual adherence of all Muslims (overall) to what was firmly established as the religious practices of the Prophet (sws) are among the main sources of understanding the concept of Sunnah and defining it.

I would like to emphasize that the above definition of the Sunnah does not rule out the importance of Hadith. However it separates the Sunnah as a primary source of understanding Islam (along with the Qur’an) from Hadith, that is a very vast, important and beneficial source of information, but one that is not an independent source of understanding Islam.





1. Dr. Mahmud Sa‘d, Al-Difa‘ ‘an al-Sunnah al-Nabawiyyah wa turuq al-istidlal, Majallah al-Buhuth al-Islamiyyah, 28:285

2. Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, Mizan (Islam: A Comprehensive Introduction), Tr. Shehzad Saleem, (Lahore: Al-Mawrid, 2014), 17-19.


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