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Difference between the Hadīth and Sunnah
Tariq Haashmi

Question: In one of the articles appearing in your journal you have distinguished between Sunnah and the Hadīth. My question is, after the elapse of 1400 years since the time of the Prophet (sws) how do we know the Sunnah apart from the Hadīth. Islam has spread all over the world. The original spirit of Islam, even in the Arabs, has been influenced by different thinkers. So, how can the Sunnah remain a well defined source? My understanding is that four juristic schools were organized before the Hadīth were compiled. Should we consider these four schools as the sole source of Sunnah?  Now if you say that we should read the opinions of early scholars and companions, in that case we will end up making a fifth school, because these four schools also take their principles and rulings from the Qur’ān, Hadīth and acts/opinions of companions. I wonder what you are trying to do is exactly what was done by four Imams.

Answer: The first thing that needs to be appreciated is that the Sunnah literally means a well-trodden path, an established practice. The word cannot be applied to dogmas, concepts, beliefs, explanations, narrations and comments. It only consists of practices adhered to by a community and not the rulings derived by the jurists and scholars. This word has never been used in the Qur’ān and other sources of Arabic to connote conceptual things. Consider the following verse of the Holy Qur’ān:

[Such was] the practice of Allah regarding those who lived before: No change will you find in the practice of Allah. (33:62)

 So where does a practice lie? Of course with those who perpetually practice it. And it is none other than the Muslim community. Muslims without any interruption have always perpetuated the practices instituted as the Sunnah. People could have tried to see these practices differently overtime (i.e. discovering different aspects of wisdom behind them) but they have retained the practices in an unadulterated form. They understand why, when and how to perform these practices instituted as Sunnah.

What is the Hadīth literature then? If we study the Hadīth literature we find that apart from the historical accounts most of it is a precious record of these Sunan. It tells us how the Prophet (sws) acted upon these Sunan. What example he set in performing them? But the Sunnah does not hinge upon the Hadīth for its existence for these are being practiced in the Muslim community. Doubtless, these have been transferred through generation-to-generation channel of transmission and therefore are well defined and ultimately reliable. 

Great Muslim scholars have always been alive to this fact. They consider the Sunnah a source of religion that cannot be doubted. It is ultimately reliable and Muslims have to adhere to these.

As for the work of the jurists, they have tried to classify all what is reported from the Prophet (sws) for legal purposes. They and the Muhaddithūn (the doctors of the science of Hadīth) use the term Sunnah for whatever has been ascribed to the Prophet (sws) by the individual narrators or what can be traced back to him through Ijma‘ (consensus) and tawātur (generation-to-generation mode of transfer). Although they generally make no such distinction, they themselves are well aware of the difference between Sunan and other things coming down to us that is the difference between the authentic corpus of the Sunnah and other probable truths. It is for this reason that the doctors of Hadīth literature call this literature as an embodiment of probable truths (Akhbār Ahād). Hence, the Sunnah stands out as the most authentic corpus of religious practices instituted by the Holy Prophet (sws) without any embellishment from the Hadīth literature – the probable truths. Similarly, the Sunnah is distinct from the fiqh developed by the jurists because the opinions of jurists are clearly known as their opinions while these practices are known in the Muslim community as Sunan. Thus, reinforcing these Sunnan is quite different an undertaking and cannot be mixed up with the work in the field of Fiqh as the former are already established among the Muslims. 


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