Editorial - The Sunnah

Many Muslims, it seems, are confused about the SUNNAH. They are not at all sure what is really meant by it. They ask: "Does it include the personal habits, likes and dislikes of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him?" This confusion about the SUNNAH is not altogether surprising for even the scholars have differing views concerning it.

The word SUNNAH literally means ‘way, path, rule, custom, manner of acting or mode of life.’ In the terminology of Islam, it generally refers to the sayings and doings of the Holy Prophet (S) as reported in the HADITH (lit. ‘sayings’). Thus SUNNAH and HADITH are held to be synonymous and are often collectively called the TRADITIONS.

The SUNNAH is divided into three categories:-

(1) SUNNATU’L-’FI’L - What the Holy Prophet (S) did; i.e. his actions or practice.

(2) SUNNATU’L-QAUL - What he enjoined; i.e. a saying which has a bearing on a religious matter.

(3) SUNNATU’T-TAQRIR - The sayings, actions or practice of another person which the Holy Prophet (S) knew of, did not forbid, and therefore, is considered to have given his unspoken approval.

It can seen from the foregoing, therefore, that the SUNNAH plays an important part in the teachings of Islam. Indeed, it is supplementary and second in importance only to the HOLY QUR'AN. The latter, generally speaking, deals with the broad principles and essentials of the Faith, while the former supplies the details. It is for this reason that the SUNNAH is often referred to in the HADITH in conjunction with the HOLY QUR'AN:-

"Allah’s Book and the Prophet’s Sunnah." (Muslim).

"Verily, the best word is the Word of Allah and the best rule of life is that delivered by His Messenger". (Mishkat).

"I have left you two things and you will not stray as long as you hold fast to them. The one is the Book of Allah and the other is the Sunnah of His Messenger". (Ibid).

On one occasion, people came to the Holy Prophet (S) and asked him: "Send us men to teach us the Qur'an and the Sunnah." (Muslim). On another it was said: "The Faith has settled in the depths of the hearts of men. They have thus learned the Qur'an and Sunnah." (Bukhari).

Unfortunately, many Muslims, because of their understandably great veneration for the Holy Prophet (S) and the importance which is attached to the SUNNAH, actually place the HADITH on a parity with the HOLY QUR'AN. Some go even further and place greater emphasis on the former than on the latter! They become well versed in the sayings and doings of the Holy Prophet (S) but know very little of Allah’s Revelations to His Messenger!

Many of our scholars also, because of their meticulous attention to, and literal interpretation of the HADITH, have contributed in no small measure to the confusion surrounding the SUNNAH. Some of their pronouncements are not only contradictory but perverse and illogical. A typical example of this is that they hold the Holy Prophet’s beard to be SUNNAH but not his shoulder-length hair; his turban but not his sandals!

It is mentioned in several AHADITH that the Holy Prophet (S) had beautiful teeth - strong, well-set and gleaming white. This was due to his assiduous use of the miswaak (toothbrush). There are particular AHADITH stating that he declared that he would have made the use of the miswaak obligatory before every salaat (prayer) had he not feared that to do so would place a burden on his followers. Some years ago, a well-known Muslim religious leader in South Africa, a ‘Mufti’, while commenting on these AHADITH, became so carried away that in the course of a Friday khutba (sermon) at the Sabiree Masjid, he thundered: "Those who speak against the miswaak are kafirs (unbelievers)!"

One of the Four Imams, Abmad ibn Hanbal (may Allah bless him), was a great Traditionalist and was renowned for the care with which he observed the SUNNAH. It is stated that he would not eat water-melons because, although he knew that the Holy Prophet (S) ate them, he could not learn whether the Holy Prophet (S) ate them with or without the rind, or whether he broke, bit or cut them.

On another occasion, when a woman asked the learned Imam whether it was proper for her to spin material for clothing by the light of torches passing in the streets at night, he forbade her from doing so because he said that the Holy Prophet (S) had not mentioned that it was lawful to do so!

It is quite possible that the pious Imam, when making these judgments, had in mind one HADITH: "He who does not follow my SUNNAH is not of me," (Bukhari); or another which stated that among the six categories of people cursed by Allah, the Holy Prophet himself and all the other Prophets, are those who have abandoned the SUNNAH, (Tirmidhi); or the fact that Islam is considered to be a complete way of life with the SUNNAH an integral part of its teachings.

We cannot help feeling, however, that one can take adherence to the ‘SUNNAH’ too far - even to the point of absurdity. The point to remember is that the Holy Prophet (S), despite his unique status as the Seal of the Prophets, and thus the IDEAL MODEL for all peoples of all times, was nevertheless a human being. This fact he repeatedly impressed upon his Companions and others, and it is best illustrated by the following incident:-

"The Messenger of Allah (S) came to Madinah when the people were grafting the male bud of a date tree into the female in order to produce greater abundance of fruit and he said: ‘Why do you do this?’ They replied: ‘It is an ancient custom.’ The Messenger of Allah (S) said: ‘Perhaps it would be better if you do not do it.’ And then they left off the custom, and the trees yielded but little fruit. The people complained to him and he said: ‘I am no more than a man. When I order anything with respect to religion, receive it; but when I order you about the affairs of the world, then I speak only as a man.’" (Mishkat).

It is obvious that not everything in the HADITH can be classified as SUNNAH and very often the latter term is applied too loosely. It is our view, therefore, that in the matter of the SUNNAH, we should try and not let the ‘experts’ confuse us. We should just use our common sense while always bearing in mind the general principles laid down in the HOLY QUR'AN.

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An Excellent Exemplar

"You have Indeed in the Messenger of Allah an excellent exemplar for those who place their hopes in Allah and the Last Day, and remember Allah much." (Holy Qur'an 33:21)

Posted May 31, 2002. This editorial was printed in the April-June 2002 issue of "The Message," a United Islamic Association (UIA) publication, London, England.