The Meaning of Sunnah

by Dr. G.F. Haddad

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

In its technical sense Sunnah has three meanings. In hadith terminology it denotes any saying (qawl), action (fi'l), approval (taqrr), or attribute (sifa), whether physical (khilqyya) or moral (khuluqyya) ascribed to (udfa ila) the Prophet , whether before or after the beginning of his prophethood.1 This meaning is used in contradistinction to the Qur'an in expressions such as "Qur'an and Sunnah" and applies in the usage of hadith scholars.

In the terminology of Usul al-fiqh or principles of jurisprudence, Sunnah denotes a saying (qawl), action (fi'l) or approval (taqrr) related from (nuqila 'an) the Prophet or issuing (sadara) from him other than the Qur'an.

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

The above meanings of Sunnah are used in contradistinction to the other four of the five legal categories for human actions - fard (obligatory), sunnah, 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 Sunnah is "obligatoriness" not "permissiveness" (al-asl fee al-Sunnah al-wujub la al-ibaha). Sunnah is thus defined as the strongest of the following near-synonymous categories:

"praiseworthy" (mandub)
"desirable" (mustahabb)
"voluntary" (tatawwu')
"refinement" (adab)
"obedience" (ta'a)
"supererogatory" (nafl)
"drawing near" (qurba)
"recommended" (raghba, murghab fh)
"excellent" (hasan)
"excellence" (ihsan)
"meritorious" (fadla)
"best" (afdal).

It is antonymous with "innovation" (bid'a), as in the expression "People of the Sunnah" or Sunnis (Ahl al-Sunnah).

Al-Dhahabi relates from Ishaq ibn Rahuyah the saying: "If al-Thawri, al-Awza'i, and Malik concur on a given matter, that matter is a Sunna." Al-Dhahabi comments:

Rather, the Sunnah is whatever the Prophet made Sunnah, and the rightly-guided Caliphs after him. As for Consensus (ijma'), it is whatever the 'ulama of the Community both early and late have unanimously agreed upon, through either assumed (zannee) or tacit (sukutee) 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 Sunnah. 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

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