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
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).
On the other hand,
this is how the Sunnah is defined in the Farahi school of
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.
In the following
paragraphs, I compare the implications of the above two
definitions for Sunnah:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Definition: Hadith and the Sunnah are fully distinct by
definition and in practice.
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.
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.