Introduction to and History of the Sunnah
1. What is the Sunnah?
Definition: Sunnah in Arabic means "a
way to be followed" or "an example to be imitated". However, in Islamic
terminology the word sunnah can have several meanings depending on the
subject being discussed, as shown below:
1) Every saying and action of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh), every
situation where he approved of an action or saying by someone else, and
his personal traits and manners.
2) For fiqh scholars, the word Sunnah is sometimes used to describe
recommended (mustahab) actions as opposed to obligatory (fardh)
In general, when the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) does a certain action
regularly, or gives glad tidings to those who do a certain action, it is
considered by fiqh scholars to be recommended. An example of this
would be praying 2 rak'at before Fajr prayer.
The Prophet used to always pray these 2 rak'at, and he promised
great rewards for anyone who prayed them. However, the Prophet never
ordered anyone to pray these 2 rak'at. Therefore, fiqh
scholars said that these 2 rak'at are to be considered recommended
and not obligatory. However, when the Prophet orders the believers to do
something, such as ordering men to grow their beards, this is considered
to be wajib (required), and not doing that action is considered
prohibited or haram.
However, in this article we are discussing the Sunnah in the first sense. We are
talking about the Sunnah in general as a source of legislation and Shariah.
try to prove that Allah (swt) has commanded Muslims to follow the Sunnah in the
holy Qur'an, and that Allah (swt) has made the Sunnah a source of Shariah.
It is obligatory for all Muslims to follow the Sunnah of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh),
and it is obligatory to follow all the orders of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh)
and refrain from all what he asked us to stay away from. This will be
proven in this article and the next one about the authority of the Sunnah
(please see link at the end of this article).
One last thing to note:
the term Hadith is sometimes used interchangeably with the term
Sunnah. Hadith simply means speech. The Hadith usually refers to all the
sayings and actions of the Prophet. The Sunnah is a broader term, since it
includes the Hadith and also the Prophets way of life, his manners, his
personality and his biography.
2. Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) as a Teacher:
The Sunnah as mentioned earlier is a term that is used to describe the
actions and sayings of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh). Therefore, when we
talk about the history of the Sunnah we must first quickly discuss the
source of this Sunnah, Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) himself.
Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) was the best example of a teacher and
mentor. This is because he used to teach people with the utmost kindness
and leniency, and he used to stay away from harshness and scolding. He,
peace be upon him, used to teach Islam in a way to make people's lives
easier, and to give them glad tidings. He used to refrain from making
matters difficult for people, or doing anything that would push people
away from Islam.
Unfortunately, many people, especially non-Muslims, have an image of
Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) as promoting Islam by force or by violence.
This could not be farther from the truth. Unfortunately, those people also
include some Muslims who simply believe anything that comes from the west.
However, for anyone who has spent the least amount of time studying the
biography (seerah) of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) and his
Sunnah, they would know that he was the kindest and most lenient of
teachers. He used to treat all Muslims as if they were his own children.
And he never shouted at anyone in his life. Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) also rarely got angry in his
life, and when he did he only got angry for the sake of Allah (swt).
Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) used to live for delivering the message of
Islam. He spent every waking moment of his life in the service of Islam,
and he was subjected to many kinds of pressure and physical harm, which he
took with patience and steadfastness. May Allah (swt) shower his
peace and blessings on Mohammad, who went through much suffering to bring
us the beautiful message of Islam.
Our discussion here is not about the biography (seerah) of Prophet
Mohammad (pbuh), however this brief introduction was required as
background information to the rest of our discussion. There is much to
learn from the biography and manners of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh),
for both non-Muslims and also Muslims as well. We will leave this for
another discussion Insha' Allah (God Willing).
3. The Companions of the Prophet and the Sunnah:
The second issue we must discuss is that of the companions of Prophet
Mohammad (pbuh). After all, they are the ones who heard his sayings
and saw his actions, and they are the ones who transmitted all of this to
us. The companions methodology of learning the Sunnah was to believe that
it is the only hope for salvation in this life and the hereafter.
Therefore, they were keen on being with the Prophet in most of his
gatherings and lectures.
In order not to miss anything said or done by the
Prophet, some companions used to alternate in attending the gatherings of
the Prophet, and then exchange notes in order to have a complete picture
of what he said. They also used to study the sayings of the Prophet and
memorize them, and many companions used to write the Sunnah in order to
preserve it as well. The companions were indeed an excellent example for
us on how to learn and follow the Sunnah, and regard this as our top
priority in life.
After the death of the Prophet, the companions were very careful in
preserving the Sunnah. They ensured not to mention a hadith unless it is
verified that it is a true saying of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh). They
also used to verify the hadith amongst each other, and prevent people who
have little knowledge from saying hadith because they will probably make
mistakes in it. They also used to be careful to use the same wording as
the original hadith by Prophet Mohammad (pbuh).
4. Traveling to Collect the Sunnah:
As Islam spread through the world, many companions and then the followers
of the companions traveled to different parts of the world to spread the
message of Islam. Therefore, the Sunnah also spread with them across many
parts of the world. This meant that those among the companions who wanted
to collect and learn the Sunnah would have to travel to various cities to
take the Sunnah from the companions at those cities.
This is indeed what happened, and this continued for the students of knowledge and especially
those who specialized in studying the Sunnah. Every scholar of Hadith used
to travel to many different cities to learn the Sunnah from it's original
sources. After the death of the companions, people used to get the Sunnah
from the students of the companions, and so on.
This travel in search of the Hadith also had other benefits in addition to simply collecting and
learning Hadith of various cities. It also helped the spread of the
Sunnah, and it added more paths to the sanad (chain of
transmission) of the Hadith. In addition, it allowed
Hadith scholars to exchange views, books and ideas, and it allowed them to
study the situations of the rawi (transmitter) of the Hadith in
order to check his reliability.