Sunna refers, in common usage, to the normative example of the prophet Muhammad, as recorded in traditions (hadith) about his speech, his actions, his acquiescence to the words and actions of others, and his personal characteristics. This close identification of sunna with Muhammad, and with authentic hadith reports originating with the Companions of the Prophet, has prevailed since the ninth century. Earlier sources, however, reflect a more flexible use of the term.
The noun "sunna" (pl. sunan) is related to the Arabic verb sanna and refers to a normative practice ordained or instituted by a specific person. The argument that sunna refers more generally to group norms or tribal customs is based on a false etymology, which takes sunna to refer to a smooth or well-worn track, implying in a social context the established or "well-trodden" custom of a tribe or group. In fact the ancient Arab idea of sunna is necessarily associated with a particular person responsible for establishing that sunna. "Every people has a sunna," according to a celebrated Arab poet, "and a progenitor of that sunna." Such sunna can be good or bad.
The same poet boasts that his ancestors left nothing bad in the way of sunna, and early Muslim traditions warn against following the bad sunna of the pre-Islamic Arabs.
Bad sunna is also a concern of the Qur’an, where the word appears in two contrasting expressions: sunnat al-awalin, the sunna of the ancients, which incurs the judgment of God; and sunnat Allah, the sunna of God, according to which He metes out judgment. The Qur’an thus contrasts ancestral norms to the norms of God, according to which the ancestral sunna will be judged. The Qur’an never explicitly associates sunna with Muhammad, although the notion may be considered implicit in the repeated Qur’anic command to obey God and His Prophet.
Early Muslim Uses of the Term
It was natural, given Muhammad’s prominence and the Qur’anic command to obey him, that early Muslims began to consider the Prophet a source of sunna. Ideas about prophetic sunna among the earliest Muslims differed significantly from later usage, however. First, the association of sunna with Muhammad was not exclusive. The first four caliphs in particular, and the Companions of the Prophet in general, were also sources for sunna. The caliph ‘Umar, for instance, asserted his freedom with regard to the appointment of a successor on the basis of conflicting precedents: Muhammad did not appoint a successor, whereas Abu Bakr did. Hence, for ‘Umar, either course of action was sunna. Similarly, ‘Ali reports that Muhammad and Abu Bakr both applied forty lashes as a penalty for drinking wine, while ‘Umar applied eighty. In the words of the tradition, "All this is sunna."
For those who circulated such traditions, Muhammad’s sunna was one sunna among many, and in principle held no higher status than the sunna of Abu Bakr or ‘Umar. This association of sunna with prominent leaders other than the Prophet continued among Shi’ite Muslims, for whom the Shi’ite imams became sources of sunna. The second difference between early understandings of sunna and those that came later was that, in early Muslim usage, sunna was not yet closely identified with hadith. Early theological treatises and historical reports show a clear dissociation of the two ideas. Sunna was often invoked as a general principle of justice or right conduct, without any reference to specific hadith reports. Even more significantly, some of the earliest Muslim legal writings are virtually hadith free. Malik b. Anas (d. 795), author of the Muwatta’, the earliest extant manual of Islamic law, appeals to sunna but treats the existing practice of the Muslims of Medina as a more reliable source of that sunna than hadith.
During the lifetime of the great jurist Muhammad b. Idris al-Shafi’i (d. 820) these early, flexible ideas of sunna still persisted, but they were under challenge. In his polemical writings Shafi’i records a contest to define sunna involving three parties: speculative theologians, the ahl al-kalam, who distrusted hadith reports and argued that to follow the prophetic sunna simply meant to follow the Qur’an; scholars of Islamic law, the ahl al-ra’y, who acknowledged the authority of prophetic sunna in theory, but resisted its exclusive identification with hadith and relied on other sources as well; and traditionists, the ashab al-hadith, represented by al-Shafi’i, who argued that sunna could only be known from reliable hadith reports traced back to the Companions of the Prophet.
Sunna as Revelation
The traditionist argument championed by al-Shafi’i ultimately won the day, a triumph reflected in the elevation of sunna to the status of revelation (wahy). According to one hadith report that reflects the traditionist point of view, "Gabriel used to descend to the Prophet with sunna just as he descended with the Qur’an." This and many similar traditions reflect the early, pre-dogmatic form of a doctrine that would later be spelled out explicitly: that the Qur’an represents recited revelation (wahy matlu) whereas sunna is unrecited revelation (wahy ghayr matlu). The two manifestations of revelation differ in form and function—the words of the Qur’an are themselves of divine provenance and the Qur’an is recited in ritual worship—but the Qur’an and sunna do not differ in substance. Both are revealed by God and are equally authoritative sources of guidance. This doctrine bears a striking similarity to the doctrine in rabbinic Judaism of a dual Torah, one part written, one part orally transmitted by the rabbis, but both originating with Moses at Mount Sinai. The authority of sunna was further reinforced by the doctrine of eisma—the assertion that, as Prophet, Muhammad was protected by God from error.
In practice the relation of the Qur’an to sunna came to be expressed in the maxim, "the Qur’an has more need of the sunna than the sunna has of the Qur’an." As al-Shafi’i argued, the Qur’an gives general commands, whereas the sunna specifies the exact intent and application of those commands. Without sunna, Muslims would know, for example, that they should perform ritual worship, salat, but they would be in the dark about precisely when, how, or how often to do so. Moreover, the sunna provides the historical context essential for interpretation of the Qur’an by means of the "occasions of revelation," or asbab al-nuzul.
The dependence of Qur’an on sunna, and the primacy of the latter, is further illustrated in discussions of abrogation (naskh). Most legal scholars agreed that prophetic sunna had in certain cases abrogated, that is, replaced, earlier revelations, whether in the Qur’an or in a prior sunna. "There is no dispute," writes the great medieval theologian al-Ghazali (d. 1111), "that the Prophet did not abrogate the Qur’an on his own initiative. He did it in response to inspiration. God does the actual abrogating, operating through the medium of his Prophet." Information about which commands abrogate and which are abrogated can only be known, of course, by means of sunna.
Sunna and Hadith
The primacy and authority of sunna as a form of revelation, as the authoritative commentary on the Qur’an and as an independent source of guidance, was thus established in principle. In practice, however, knowledge of sunna required sifting authentic traditions from the voluminous, diverse, and forgery-ridden mass of hadith reports. The chief tool for this sifting was examination of the isnad, a hadith report’s formal chain of transmission. Hadith specialists evaluated the isnad on two criteria: the reliability of the individuals who transmitted the tradition, and continuity within the chain of transmission.
When those alleged to have transmitted a tradition met the highest standards of character, memory, and reliability, and when each transmitter could be shown to have been in sufficient proximity with the next to have plausibly passed on the report, then the tradition could be considered sound (sahih). Traditions judged less reliable were classified as fair (hasan), weak (da’if), or fabricated (mawdu’). A huge literature grew up around this process, including massive biographical dictionaries, collections of hadith, and manuals of hadith criticism. The process of sifting hadith culminated in the tenth century with the compilation of the great collections of sahih hadith, especially the six "canonical" collections, the most celebrated of which are those of Muhammad b. Isma’il al-Bukhari (d. 870) and Muslim b. al-Hajjaj (d. 874). From the tenth century onward, the canonical collections of hadith, especially the collections of Bukhari and Muslim, became virtually synonymous with sunna, exerting a profound and pervasive impact on Islamic culture.
The Influence of Sunna on Islamic Law and Piety
The triumph of hadith had an especially deep impact on the theory and method of Islamic law. The traditionist thesis exerted extraordinary pressure to document every legal opinion with generous citations of hadith, hence the tendency for hadith reports to proliferate and for chains of transmission to grow backwards. The impact of hadith on the actual content of the law was mitigated, however, in a variety of ways. Acceptance of a hadith report as embodying authentic sunna did not necessarily assure its legal application. Jurists commonly distinguished, for example, between the personal habits and preferences of the Prophet (al-sunna al-eadiyya) and actions related to his Prophetic mission (sunnat al-huda). The former gave rise, at best, to recommended actions, while the latter were legally binding. This distinction is reflected in a tradition that recounts an occasion on which Muhammad gave bad advice to some date farmers. When confronted with the unfortunate results he replied, "I am only human. If I command something related to religion, then obey, but if I order you to do something on the basis of my own opinion, then I am only a human being." Among the schools of Islamic law, only the Zahiris, who were extreme literalists, insisted that the sunna in its entirety was legally applicable.
From the perspective of Muslim piety, however, the sunna of the Prophet as reflected in authenticated hadith reports was to be imitated in all its particulars. Thus al-Ghazali instructs Muslims that "the key to joy is following the sunna and imitating the Prophet in all his comings and goings, words and deeds, extending to his manner of eating, rising, sleeping, and speaking." The term sunna also came to be used more generally in any claim to represent the authentic and original practice of the Muslim community. The opposite of sunna in this sense is bid’a, or innovation. Thus Sunni Muslims distinguished themselves from Shi’ites and claimed to represent the authentic legacy of the Prophet by adopting the label ahl al-sunna wa’ljama’a, people of the sunna and of the community. It is also in this sense that reformist Muslims have from time to time called for a revival of the sunna as remedy for the ills of their time. Such appeals have been especially associated with scholars of the Hanbali school of law, most notably the school’s founder, Ahmad b. Hanbal (d. 855), and its most celebrated medieval jurist, Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), whose intellectual legacy has continued to modern times.
A call to revive the sunna (ihya’ al-sunna) became a particular focus of eighteenth-century reformers like Shah Wali Allah of India and Muhammad al-Shawkani of Yemen, who appealed to sunna to critique existing religious practices and received legal doctrine. This pattern of sunna-based reform continued in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially among certain Indian Muslims who called themselves the Ahl-e Hadith (people of the hadith) as well as among the salafi reformers of Egypt and Syria. At the same time that these reformers were emphasizing the centrality of sunna as a means of reviving Islam, however, others began to challenge its authority for the same purpose.
Modern challenges to the authority of sunna have had two points of focus. First, a number of Muslims have argued that the hadith reports from which sunna is derived are unreliable. Nineteenth-century modernists Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d. 1898) of India and Muhammad ‘Abduh (d. 1905) of Egypt were among the first to openly express doubts about the reliability of hadith, partly under the influence of European hadith criticism. Beginning in the twentieth century some Muslims, most notably Mahmud Abu Rayya and Ghulam Ahmad Parwez (d. 1985), came to reject hadith altogether, arguing that oral transmission, rampant forgery, and the late recording of hadith reports in writing make it impossible to sort authentic hadith from the mass of forgeries. Second, some Muslims have argued that even if the details of Muhammad’s life could be known with certainty, not all of his words and deeds are meant to be followed. Secularists, like Chiragh ‘Ali (1844-1895) and ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq (1888-1966), argued that Muhammad’s authority was limited to spiritual matters only. A small number of Qur’an-only Muslims, the so-called Ahl-e Qur’an (people of the Qur’an) of Pakistan as well as individual
scholars like Parwez, contend that Muhammad’s only legacy is the Qur’an. Even some revivalist Muslims, notably Abu l-A’la’ Maududi (1903-1979), a fierce defender of sunna in theory, limit the scope of sunna by distinguishing between Muhammad’s actions as an ordinary man and his actions as a Prophet.
These challenges to sunna have provoked vigorous polemics in defense of its authority from conservative scholars. Consequently sunna has become the single most important focus of controversy in modern Muslim discussions of religious authority.
See also Bid’a; Hadith; Law; Modern Thought; Muhammad; Qur’an; Religious Institutions.
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Daniel W. Brown