The oral tradition: Sunnah and Hadith

Sunnah (sunnah, سنة, plural سنن sunan) is the verbally transmitted record of the teachings, deeds and sayings of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, as well as various reports about Muhammad’s companions. The Quran and the Sunnah make up the two primary sources of Islamic theology and law. The Sunnah is also defined as “a path, a way, a manner of life”; “all the traditions and practices” of the Islamic prophet that “have become models to be followed” by Muslims.
Sunnah is an Arabic word that means “habit” or “usual practice”. Sunni Muslims are also referred to as Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l-Jamā’ah (“people of the tradition and the community [of Muhammad]”) or Ahl as-Sunnah for short.

In the pre-Islamic period, the word sunnah was used with the meaning “manner of acting”, whether good or bad. During the early Islamic period, the term came to refer to any good precedent set by people of the past, including the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Under the influence of Al-Shafi’i, who argued for priority of Muhammad’s example as recorded in hadith over precedents set by other authorities, the term al-sunnah eventually came to be viewed as synonymous with the sunnah of Muhammad.

The sunnah of Muhammad includes his specific words (Sunnah Qawliyyah), habits, practices (Sunnah Fiiliyyah), and silent approvals (Sunnah Taqririyyah). According to Muslim belief, Muhammad was the best exemplar for Muslims, and his practices are to be adhered to in fulfilling the divine injunctions, carrying out religious rites, and moulding life in accord with the will of GOD. Instituting these practices was, as the Quran states, a part of Muhammad’s responsibility as a messenger of GOD (ALLAH). Recording the sunnah was an Arabian tradition and, once people converted to Islam, they brought this custom to their religion.


According to Fazlur Rahman, Sunnah is a behavior concept. This concept could be applied on mental and physical acts, in other words, sunnah counted as a law of behavior. This behavior belongs to conscious agents who can possess their acts. Besides, sunnah counted as normative moral law. Sunnah also means the actual practice which gains the status of normative and comes to be considered obligatory.

Basis of importance

Among the Quranic verses quoted as demonstrating the importance of hadith/Sunnah to Muslims are

Say: Obey GOD [ALLAH] and obey the Messenger

Which appears in several verses: 3, 32 ; 5, 92 ; 24, 54 ; 64,12

Your companion [Muhammad] has not strayed, nor has he erred, Nor does he speak from [his own] inclination or desire.

A similar (favour have ye already received) in that We [plural maiestatis] have sent among you a Messenger of your own, rehearsing to you Our Signs, and sanctifying you, and instructing you in Scripture and Wisdom, and in new knowledge.

Ye have indeed in the Messenger of GOD a beautiful pattern (of conduct) for any one whose hope is in GOD and the Final Day, and who engages much in the Praise of GOD.

The teachings of “wisdom” have been declared to be a function of Muhammad along with the teachings of the scripture. Several Quranic verses mention “wisdom” (hikmah) coupled with “scripture” or “the book” (i.e. the Quran), and it is thought that in this context, “wisdom” means the sunnah.
Surah 4 (An-Nisa), ayah 113 states: “For ALLAH hath sent down to thee the Book and wisdom and taught thee what thou Knewest not (before): And great is the Grace of ALLAH unto thee.”
Surah 2 (Al-Baqara), ayah 231: “…but remember ALLAH’s grace upon you and that which He hath revealed unto you of the Scripture and of wisdom, whereby He doth exhort you.”
Surah 33 (Al-Ahzab), ayah 34: “And bear in mind which is recited in your houses of the revelations of GOD and of wisdom”.

Therefore, along with divine revelation the sunnah was directly taught by GOD. Modern Sunni scholars are beginning to examine both the sira and the hadith in order to justify modifications to jurisprudence (fiqh). The sunnah, in one form or another, would retain its central role in providing a moral example and ethical guidance.

For Muslims the imitation of Muhammad helps one to know and be loved by GOD (ALLAH): one lives in constant remembrance of GOD.

Providing examples

In addition there are a number of verses in the Quran where “to understand the context, as well as the meaning of verses”, Muslims need to refer to the record of the life and example of the Prophet.

It is thought that verses 16, 44 and 64 indicate that Muhammed’s mission “is not merely that of a deliveryman who simply delivers the revelation from GOD to us, Rather, he has been entrusted with the most important task of explaining and illustrating” the Quran.

And We have also sent down unto you (O Muhammad) the reminder and the advice (the Quran), that you may explain clearly to men what is sent down to them, and that they may give thought.

And We have not sent down the Book (the Quran) to you (O Muhammad), except that you may explain clearly unto them those things in which they differ, and (as) a guidance and a mercy for a folk who believe.
[Quran 16, 64]

For example, while the Quran presents the general principles of praying, fasting, paying zakat [offering], or making pilgrimage, they are presented “without the illustration found in hadith, for these acts of worship remain as abstract imperatives in the Qur’an”.

Ḥadīth (Arabic: حديثḥadīth pl. aḥādīth, أحاديث, ʼaḥādīth, also “Traditions”) in Islam refers to the record of the words, actions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The hadith are consider as a source for religious law and moral guidance ranks second only to that of the Qur’an (which Muslims hold to be the word of GOD revealed to the prophet). Scriptural authority for hadith derives from the Quran which enjoins Muslims to emulate Muhammad and obey his judgments (in verses such as 24, 54 and 33, 21). While the number of verses pertaining to law in the Quran is relatively few, hadith give direction on everything from details of religious obligations (such as Ghusl or Wudu, ablutions for salat “prayer”), to the correct forms of salutations and the importance of benevolence to slaves. Thus the “great bulk” of the rules of Sharia (Islamic law) are derived from hadith, rather than the Qur’an.

Ḥadīth is the Arabic word for things like “speech”, “report”, “account”, “narrative”. Unlike the Qur’an, not all Muslim believe hadith accounts (and for sure nobody of the Muslim believers convey that all hadith are good to follow) are divine revelation. hadith were not written down by Muhammad’s followers immediately after his death but several generations later when they were collected, collated and compiled into a great corpus of Islamic literature. Different collections of hadīth would come to differentiate the different branches of the Islamic faith. A small minority of Muslims called Quranists reject all Ḥadīth.

Because some hadith include questionable and even contradictory statements, the authentication of hadith became a major field of study in Islam. In its classic form a hadith has two parts — the chain of narrators who have transmitted the report (the isnad), and the main text of the report (the matn). Individual hadith are classified by Muslim clerics and jurists into categories such as sahih (“authentic”), hasan (“good”) or da’if (“weak”). However, different groups and different scholars may classify a hadith differently.

Among some scholars of Sunni Islam the term hadith may include not only the words, advice, practices, etc. of Muhammad, but also those of his companions. In Shia Islam, hadīth are the embodiment of the sunnah, the words and actions of the Prophet and his family the Ahl al-Bayt (The Twelve Imams and the Prophet’s daughter, Fatimah).

Islam and the Bible

The Islamic view of the Christian Bible is based on the belief that the Quran says that parts of Bible are a revelation from GOD, but believe that some of it has become distorted or corrupted (tahrif), and that a lot of text has been added which was not part of the revelation. Muslims believe The Qur’an, which they hold to be a revelation to the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, was given as a remedy and that it identifies three sets of Books from the Bible as genuine Divine Revelation given to trusted messengers: the Tawrat (Torah) given to Musa (Moses), the Zabur (Psalms) given to Daud (David) and the Injil (Gospel) given to Isa (Jesus). They believe that, together, the Qur’an, these Books, and the Suhuf Ibrahim (“Scrolls of Abraham”, which they believe is currently lost) constitute Islam’s scripture. Belief that this Scripture is Divinely inspired is one of Islam’s fundamental tenets, traditional Muslim teaching stresses those passages in the Koran which affirm the Christian Gospel and the Hebrew Torah as valid revelations of GOD and Paths to Salvation. But there is a harsher, Saudi-influenced view which insists that since Muhammad delivered the final Revelation, Christianity and Judaism have lost their power to save. Despite this, they believe it is still possible to find Muhammad in the Bible.

Islamic view of the Torah (Tawrat) – The Qur’an mentions the word Torah eighteen times and confirms that it was The Word Of GOD. However, they believe that there have been additions and subtractions made to the Torah.

Islamic view of the Book of Psalms (Zabur) – Sura An-Nisa 4:163 of the Qur’an states “and to David We gave the Psalms”. Therefore, Islam confirms the Psalms as being inspired of GOD. The Qur’an mentions the word Zabur three times.

Islamic view of the Gospel (Injil) – When the Qur’an speaks of the Gospel, it is believed to refer to an original Divinely revealed Book that came to Jesus Christ. It does not refer to any Gospel written by any of Jesus’s disciples, such as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and other lost Gospels such as that of Peter.

Although Muslims believe that Jesus’ original Gospel has been lost, they believe that hints of the Message of the original Gospel are still evident in the traditional Gospels of Christianity. However, they believe that there have been additions and subtractions made to the real story in these Gospels, much like they do the Torah

Though Muhammad was not an Israelite, according to Islamic tradition, he was a descendant of Ishmael and therefore traced his descent back to Abraham (from the son Ishmael of his wife slave Hagar), like the Israelites.

Some of the people found in both the Qur’an and the Bible include; Aaron, Abel, Abraham, Adam, Cain, David, the disciples of Jesus, Elias, Elisha, Enoch, Eve, Ezra, Goliath, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Jesus, John the Baptist, Jonah, Joseph, Lot, Mary, Moses, Noah, the Pharaohs of Egypt, Samuel, Saul, Solomon, and Zacharias.

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