2. Sunnah and Hadīth



i. Sunnah and Hadīth are Synonymous


The word Hadīthis often understood to be a synonym for the word Sunnah. This is not correct. There is a great difference between the two not only regarding the extent of their authenticity, but also their content.

A narrative of the words, deeds or tacit approvals of the Prophet (sws) is called Hadīth. It does not add anything to the content of Islam stated in the Qur’ānand Sunnah, the two original sources of Islam. Ahādīth(plural of Hadīth) only explain and elucidate what is contained in these two sources and also describe the exemplary way in which the Prophet (sws) followed Islam. The scholars of Hadīthsay that a Hadīthmay be true or it may be false.[1]For this very reason, Ahādīthare also called dhannī (presumptive or indefinite).

On the other hand, the word Sunnahliterally means “busy path”, “trodden path”, “beaten path”. As a term, it refers to the practices of the Prophet Abraham (sws) to which the Prophet Muhammad (sws) gave religious sanction among his followers after reviving and reforming them and after making certain additions to them.[2]The Qur’ānhas directed the Prophet (sws) to obey these Abrahamic practices in the following words:


ثُمَّ أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْكَ أَنِ اتَّبِعْ مِلَّةَ إِبْرَاهِيمَ حَنِيفًا وَمَا كَانَ مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ (123:16)

Then We revealed to you to follow the ways of Abraham, who was true in faith and was not among the polytheists. (16:123)


The following three aspects further bring out the difference between Hadīthand Sunnah.

Firstly, while Ahādīthcan be inauthentic or spurious, the Sunnahcannot be so. The Sunnahis in fact as authentic as the Qur’ān. This is because of the difference in the nature of transmission. Ahādīthhave been transmitted by a few individuals and therefore become dependent on their character, memory and intellect – all of which can falter even if the person in question is very pious. On the other hand, the Sunnah has been transmitted by whole generations to the next. Such is the vast number of people who have adhered to certain practices that there is no possibility of any error. The memory, intellect and character of a few persons can falter but when thousands of people deliver the same thing, any faulty transmission is ruled out. Furthermore, not only have a large number of people transmitted these practices, but also there is a consensus in the ummah regarding the authenticity of these practices. In other words, even people who do not adhere to these practices also vouch for their veracity.

Secondly, Sunnahis purely related to the practical aspects of Islam such as the prayer, hajj, nikāh, wudū and tayammum. Issues that pertain to belief, history, occasion of revelation and explanation of Qur’ānic verses lie outside its domain. On the other hand, Ahādīthare not confined to a certain sphere of Islam. Their content ranges from the practical issues of religion to intellectual ones and from historical episodes to explanation of the Qur’ānand of the Sunnahitself.

Thirdly, the Sunnahis not based on Ahādīth. For instance, we have not adopted the prayer, pilgrimage, etc in all their details because a few narrators explained them to us; on the contrary, we have adopted them because every person in our surroundings is either adhering to it or vouching for its veracity. In other words, Sunnah is an entirely independent source of Islam. However, some Ahādīthmay contain a record of the Sunnah just as they may contain the record and explanation of certain verses of the Qur’ān. But just as having a record of the Qur’āndoes not make Ahādīththe same as the Qur’ān, having a record of the Sunnahdoes not make Ahādīthequivalent to the Sunnah.



ii. Every Act of the Prophet (sws) is a Sunnah


Some people are of the opinion that every act and every deed done by the Prophet (sws) is a Sunnah.

While critically analyzing this concept, Ghāmidī writes:[3]

The Qur’ānis absolutely clear that the prophets of Allah were sent to deliver His religion. In their prophetic capacity, the ambit of their thoughts and deeds was only that of religion. Everything besides this, was primarily of no concern to them. No doubt besides their prophetic capacity they were also Ibrāhīm ibn Āzar, Musa ibn ‘Imrān. ‘Īsā ibn Maryam and Muhammad ibn ‘Abdullāh in their human capacity; however, in this human capacity, they never asked obedience from their followers. All their demands were confined to their capacity as prophets, and what was given to them in this capacity was religion, and thus it was only religion whose propagation they were liable for:


شَرَعَ لَكُم مِّنَ الدِّينِ مَا وَصَّى بِهِ نُوحًا وَالَّذِي أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْكَ وَمَا وَصَّيْنَا بِهِ إِبْرَاهِيمَ وَمُوسَى وَعِيسَى أَنْ أَقِيمُوا الدِّينَ وَلَا تَتَفَرَّقُوا فِيهِ (13:42)

He has enjoined on you the same religion which He enjoined on Noah, and which We have now revealed to you, which We enjoined on Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, with the assertion: “Adhere to this religion [in your lives] and do not create any divisions in it.” (42:13)


Consequently, it is known in history that the Prophet (sws) used weapons like swords and arrows in wars, travelled on camels, constructed a mosque whose roof was made of palm tree stems, ate some foods which were customary in the Arab society and showed his like or dislike for them, wore a certain dress which was in vogue in Arabia and whose selection also had much to do with his personal taste – however, none of these things can be termed Sunnah and neither can any man of learning regard them to be Sunnah. At one instance, the Prophet (sws) himself is reported to have said:


إِنَّمَا أَنَا بَشَرٌ إِذَا أَمَرْتُكُمْ بِشِيءٍ مِنْ دِيْنِكُمْ فَخُذُوْا بِهِ وَإِذَا أَمَرْتُكُمْ بِشِيءٍ مِنْ رَأيِ فَإِنمَّاَ أَنَا بَشَرٌ  إِنمَّاَ ظَنَنْتُ ظَناًّ فَلاَ تُؤَاخِذُونِي باِلظَّنِّ وَلَكِنْ إِذاَ حَدَّثْتُكُمْ عَنِ اللهِ شَيْئاً فَخُذُوْا بِهِ فَإِنِّي لَنْ اُكَذِّبَ عَلىَ اللهِ أَنْتُمْ أَعْلَمُ بِأَمْرِ دُنْيَاكُمْ

I am also a human being. When I direct you about something which relates to your religion, take it from me and when I express my own opinion [about something which is outside this sphere], then my status in this regard is nothing more than that of a human being … I had conjectured about  something.[4] Do not hold me accountable for such things which are based on opinion and conjecture. However, if I say something on behalf of God, take it because I will never forge a lie on God … You very well know about your worldly affairs.[5]



iii. The Qur’ān should be interpreted through Hadīth


There is a group of scholars which believes that the Qur’ān is dependent on the Hadīth for its interpretation and must at all cost be understood through it. However, the status occupied by the Qur’ān as the mīzān and the furqān entails that everything should be interpreted in light of the guidance it provides.

Ghāmidī writes:[6]


The Qur’ān says about itself:


اللَّهُ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ الْكِتَابَ بِالْحَقِّ وَالْمِيزَانَ (17:42)

It is God who has revealed with truth the Book which is this scale [of justice]. (42:17)


The verse means that the Almighty has revealed the Qur’ān which is a scale of justice meant to distinguish good from evil. It is the only scale that weighs everything else, and there is no scale in which it can be weighed:


تَبَارَكَ الَّذِي نَزَّلَ الْفُرْقَانَ عَلَى عَبْدِهِ لِيَكُونَ لِلْعَالَمِينَ نَذِيرًا (1:25)

Blessed be He who has revealed al-furqān to His servant that it may warn the whole world. (25:1)


The Qur’ān is also a furqān in the same sense, ie. a Book which has the final and absolute verdict to distinguish truth from falsehood. This word also connotes the fact that this Book is the standard by which everything needs to be judged and is a decisive word on matters that relate to religion. Everyone must turn to it only to resolve differences of opinion. Nothing can be a judge on it; it shall reign supreme in the dominion of religion and every person is bound not to make it subservient to any other thing.


The Qur’ān is the most definite and authentic record of whatever Muhmmad (sws) did in his status of a prophet and a messenger. Consequently, most topics covered in the Hadīth are related to the Qur’ān the way a branch is related to a stem or the way an explanation is related to the text it explains. Without recourse to the original text, it is obvious that its corollaries and explanations cannot be understood. If all the mistakes in interpreting the Hadīth are minutely analyzed, this situation becomes abundantly clear. The incidents of stoning to death in the times of the Prophet (sws), the assassination of Ka‘b ibn Ashraf, punishment meted out in the graves, narratives such as مَنْ بَدَّلَ دِينَهُ فَاقْتُلُوهُ (execute the person who changes his faith)[7] have become issues which have caused a lot of confusion and have been subjected to misinterpretation because they have not been understood by relating them to their basis in the Qur’ān.



iv. Ahādīth are as Authentic as the Qur’ān


There are scholars who believe that the Ahādīth are as authentic as the Qur’ān.[8]This view is not correct. Whilst there is no need to investigate the authenticity of the Qurān, both the text and chain of narration of a Hadīth require investigation.

Ghāmidī, while explaining this, writes:[9]


It is the chain of narration of a narrative that makes it a Hadīth that can be attributed to the Prophet (sws). In addition to any hidden flaws in the chain of narration of a Hadīth, the trustworthiness of the narrators,[10] their memory and the contemporaneousness of the narrators are the three standards which should be taken into consideration in the light of the material which the scholars of Hadīth have painstakingly made available. This is the standard which scholars of Hadīth have put forth for the examination of the chain of narration of a Hadīth, and is so sound that no addition can be made to it nor anything taken away from it.


Since attributing something suspect to the Prophet (sws) can be of severe consequences in this world and in that to come, it is necessary to apply this standard without any lenience and with absolute impartiality to every narrative attributed to him. Only those narratives should be considered acceptable which fully conform to this standard. Thus no narrative attributed to the Prophet (sws) even if found in primary works as the al-Jāmi al-sahīh of Imām Bukhārī, al-Jāmi al-sahīh of Imām Muslim and the Mu’attā of Imām Mālik can be accepted without application of this standard.


Besides investigating the chain of narration of a Hadīth, the second thing which requires investigation is the text of a Hadīth. Although scholars of Hadīth have left no stone unturned in investigating the characters and biographies of the narrators and have spent the greater part of their lives in this research yet, like every human endeavour, the natural flaws which still exist in the narration of a Hadīth[11] require that the following two things must always be considered while investigating the text of a Hadīth:


1. Nothing in it should be against the Qur’ān and Sunnah.


2. Nothing in it should be against established facts derived from knowledge and reason.


The Qur’ān, it has been alluded to earlier, is the mīzān (the scale of truth) and the furqān (the distinguisher between truth and falsehood). It is like a guardian of every religious concept and it has been revealed as a barometer to judge between what is right and what is wrong. Thus, no further explanation is required of the fact that if anything is against the Qur’ān, then it must stand rejected.


Similar is the case of the Sunnah. Whatever religion has been received through it is as certain and authentic as the Qur’ān, as has been explained earlier. There is no difference between the level of authenticity of the two. Just as the Qur’ān is validated through the consensus of the ummah, the Sunnah is also determined from its consensus. Since this fact is an absolute reality about the Sunnah, so if a Hadīth is against the Sunnah and if there is no way out to resolve a conflict between the two, the Hadīth in consideration must necessarily be rejected.


Established facts derived from knowledge and reason also have the same status in this regard. The Qur’ān is absolutely clear that its message is based on these established facts. Its arguments on such basic issues as tawhīd and the Hereafter are primarily based on these facts. It is the requirements and demands of these facts which the Qur’ān highlights through its teachings. Every student of the Qur’ān is aware that it presents these facts as deciding factors for the message it puts forth. It presented them as the final word both before the Idolaters of Arabia and the People of the Book. Those who oppose these are regarded by it as people who follow their base desires. Thus intuitive realities, historical truths, results of experience and observation – all are discussed in the Qur’ān in this very capacity. Hence how can a Hadīth which is against these facts regarded by the Qur’ān as ones which distinguish between the truth and untruth be accepted? It is obvious that it shall stand rejected. All leading scholars of Hadīth also hold this view. Al-Khatīb writes:


ولا يقبل خبر الواحدفي منافاة حكم العقل وحكم القرآن الثابت المحكم والسنة المعلومة والفعل الجاري مجرى السنة كل دليل مقطوع به

A khabar al-wāhid [– Hadīth –] cannot be accepted which is against sense and reason, is against an established and explicit directive of the Qur’ān, is against a known Sunnah or is against a practice which is observed like the Sunnah or its conflict with some conclusive argument becomes absolutely evident.[12]


v. Ahādīthcan be interpreted Independently


A general practice in interpreting Ahādīthis that each narrative is interpreted independently even if its variant texts exist. As a result, the complete picture in which a directive was given is sacrificed and one often ends up deducing a directive from incomplete data.

It needs to be appreciated that all the variant texts of a Hadīth must be studied in order to form an opinion about it. While explaining this important aspect, Ghāmidī writes:[13]


Many a time a person may form an opinion about a Hadīth by not studying its variants; however, once he deliberates on all the variants his overall interpretation changes. One glaring example of this is the Ahādīthwhich mention the prohibition of pictures and portraits. If only some of the narratives are studied, one can easily conclude that this prohibition is absolute and every picture and portrait is prohibited in Islam. However, if all the variants are collected and analyzed, it becomes evident that the prohibition is regarding only those pictures which have been made for worshipping. Many similar examples can be cited from the corpus of the Hadīth literature. Thus it is essential that if one is not satisfied from the apparent words of a Hadīth, one must gather and collate all its variants to form an opinion.