Difference Between Ḥadīth and Sunnah

Difference Between Ḥadīth and Sunnah

Chapter 1

Generally people take ḥadīth and sunnah as synonymous terms. This is not a correct impression for there is a great difference between these two terms. Ḥadīth and Sunnah occupy distinct status and different station in the religious knowledge. Taking them as synonyms complicates our perception of the religious knowledge. With a view to understanding aḥādīth this difference between the two terms is extremely important to understand.

1.1 Ḥadīth

The term ḥadīth is used to denote a saying, act or tacit approval, validly or invalidly, ascribed to the Prophet (sws).

The muḥaddithūn (experts in the science of ḥadīth criticism) also use the term taqrīr for tacit approvals. It means that, in the presence of the Prophet (sws), a believer did something, which the Prophet (sws) noticed but did not disapprove or condemn. Thus, the act done by a believer acquired tacit approval from the Prophet (sws).

The muḥaddithūn use another term khabar for a ḥadīth. It is commonly acknowledged that khabar can be true or false. The scholars of the science of ḥadīth criticism hold that a khabar and, therefore, a ḥadīth can be a true report or a concoction. It is on the basis of this premise that the Muslim scholars hold that a ḥadīth offers a ẓannī (inconclusive/probably true) evidence. It is as though a ḥadīth may have many possibilities on the plane of reliability. It can be ṣaḥīḥ,[1]ḥasan,[2]dha'īf,[3]mawḍū'[4]and maqlūb[5]. For obvious reasons, each of these kinds will be treated differently. They will be given different weight as the source text.

1.2 Types of Khabar

The muḥaddithūn divide the ḥadīth/khabar in two kinds, khabar-i mutawātir and khabar-i wāḥid.

1.2.1 Khabar-i Mutawātir

The author of al-Kifāyah fī 'ilm al-Riwāyah, Khaṭīb Baghdādī, has defined the Mutawātir report as follows:

A mutawātir ḥadīth is reported by such a large number of narrators that cannot be perceived to have jointly forged and narrated a tradition about an issue without a compelling force.[6]

Although the term khabar-i mutawātir is in vogue; what it denotes does not exist. Sometimes a ḥadīth is believed to be khabar-i mash-hūr. But a little research reveals that it has been transmitted by a single narrator in each of first three layers in the isnād. Such narratives are reported by a large number of reporters in the third or fourth layer. Similarly, in my opinion, all such narratives which are usually termed as khabar-i mutawātir should be thoroughly investigated. If a thorough and exhaustive survey proves them to be mutawātir, they should be taken as such; but if they fail the test, they must not be fictitiously termed as mutawātir any more. I must also emphasize the point that, in my opinion, the Sunnah is mutawātir. However, it is mutawātir in that it has been perpetually adhered to by each generation of Muslims. This tawātur is not oral. This issue will fully be explained later.

1.2.2 Khabar-i Wāḥid

Khabar-i wāḥidsignifies a historical narrative that falls short of yielding certain knowledge. Even if more than one person reports the narrative, that does not make it certain and conclusive truth except when the number of narrators reporting it grows to the level that the possibility of their consensus on forging a lie is perfectly removed. Most of the ḥadīth literature consists of individual isolated narratives.

1.3 Categories of Aḥādīth according to Authenticity

Khaṭīb Baghdādī divides the individual narratives in the following categories, according to their epistemic value:

  • · aḥādīthwhich are clearly genuine and acceptable.
  • · aḥādīthwhich are clear fabrications.
  • · aḥādīthwhose status is not clear.

An explanation of all three follows:

1.3.1 Genuine and Acceptable Aḥādīth

According to Khaṭīb Baghdādī, the narratives of the following qualities belong to the first category:

  • · The narratives that contain reports testified by the "human intellect" (mimmā tadullu al-'uqūl 'alā mūjabihī) and that which are aligned with common sense.
  • · The narratives that are a corollary of the Qur'ānic text and the Sunnah.
  • · The narratives that have been received as acceptable by the ummah as a whole.

This should be appreciated that "the acceptance of the ummah" means only the acceptance by the part of the ummah that has remained pure from the contaminations of religious innovations and blind following. Thawbān (rta) narrates that the Prophet (sws) said:

A group from among my ummah will always hold fast to the truth. They shall not be harmed despite being abandoned by some people. They will remain in this state (of steadfastness) till God's decree arrives. (Muslim, No: 1920)

1.3.2 Fabricated and Unacceptable Aḥādīth

According to Khaṭīb, the second category of the narratives ascribed to the Prophet (sws) consists of aḥādīth of the following characteristics:

  • · The narratives that offend reason.
  • · The narratives that contradict the Qur'ān and the Sunnah.
  • · The narratives that discuss issues of prime importance in the religion which require absolute certainty. In such issues the Almighty cuts all possibilities of excuse for the recipients. They are left with no reasonable grounds to reject the teachings reported to them on the ground of historical authenticity. However, the individual narratives fail to provide required certitude of the reported knowledge and are not accepted.
  • · The individual narratives regarding issues which, by their very nature, demand that they should have been reported by a large number of people are also not acceptable.

According to the Ḥanafī jurists, in the issues of 'umūm-i balwā,[7]the individual narratives carry no weight. In such issues they prefer qiyās and ijtihād over this type of individual narratives.

1.3.3 Indeterminable Aḥādīth

Narratives that give contradicting directives on a single issue and make it difficult for us to determine the final command in that regard form the third category.

While deciding on the applicability of the directives contained in this type of aḥādīth, only such narratives should be accepted as valid which correspond to and accord with the wording of the collated narratives, textual evidence from the Qur'ān and the Sunnah.

1.4 The Sunnah

Literally the word sunnah means clear, well trodden, busy and plain surfaced road. The Qur'ān has used this word to connote the way God has always dealt with the nations. It says:

This is the way God has dealt with the people who passed before you. God's decision is always predestined. (Q 33:38)

Do they look for anything other than God's way of dealing with the people of old? But you will never find any change in the way of God; nor will you find that God's way will turn off. (Q 35:43)

The word sunnah in the discussion of the sources of religion, denotes the practice of the Prophet (sws) that he taught and practically instituted as a teacher of the sharī'ah and the best exemplar. This practice is to be adhered to in fulfilling the divine injunctions, carrying out religious rites and moulding life in accord with the will of God. To institutute these practices was, the Qur'ān states, a part of the Prophet's responsibility as a Messenger of God:

Verily God has shown grace to the believers by sending to them a messenger of their own who recites to them His verses, and purifies them, and teaches them the law and the wisdom; although before his advent they were in manifest error. (Q 3:164)

You have indeed in the life of the Messenger of God the best example; for those who expect meeting God and the Last Day and remember Him much. (Q 33:21)

The Prophet (sws) set the best example for us in every aspect of life. He not only taught us all religious injunctions and etiquette –that we need to learn and adopt – but also showed us the practice of how to follow and carry out them.

The rejecters of the religious status and authority of the Sunnah hold that the Prophet (sws) was not more than a mere postman appointed to deliver the divine message. Their view is most absurd and baseless. The Prophet (sws) was appointed not only to communicate to the world the Book of God but also to purify the souls and to teach them how to practice the sharī'ah. His life is the perfect model for the believers to emulate. It is only by following his example that we can mould our life in accord with the religion of Islam and the dictates of the faith.

1.5 Importance of the Sunnah

The teachings of Islam contained in the Qur'ān consist of core guidance. Details and application of all the injunctions have not been provided in the Book. These things have been left for the Prophet (sws) to explain. The entire edifice of Islam is built on the building blocks of the Sunnah of the Prophet (sws). The Qur'ān, for example, only gives basic directives regarding the ritual Prayer, fast, ḥajj, zakāh and other rites and rituals. However, none of these directives have been explained in any detail in the Book. So much so we do not find even necessary details regarding, for example, timings and units of the ritual prayer – the most important religious injunction. The case of other worship rituals and directives is no different. For example, the directive to cut the hands of a convicted thief is found in the Qur'ān. Yet we do not know what value of the stolen item renders the theft punishable. Where do we cut the hand from? Questions like these have been explained through the tongue of the Prophet (sws) and his practice. If we set aside the Sunnah we will only be left with principal guidance of the Qur'ān and will remain ignorant as to how they are to be practiced, as it happened with the followers of the religion of Abraham, the so-called ḥanīfs. It is reported that they would sit against the walls of the Ka'bah and address God saying: "O Lord, we do not know how to worship You. We would worship You the prescribed way had we known it."[8]

This shows that the Qur'ān can only be clarified and explained with the help of the Sunnah. This is precisely for the same reason the Prophet (sws) said:

Beware, I have been granted the Qur'ān and with it something similar to it. (Abū Dāwūd, No: 4604)

This proves that following the Sunnah is as necessary as the Qur'ān. God Almighty sent the Prophet (sws) to make the Qur'ān clear. He is the best exemplar who sets paradigmatic example of the Qur'ānic teachings. He has beautifully fulfilled this function.

So this explains that the Sunnah is to the Qur'ān as body is to soul. Teachings of the Qur'ān are a soul whose observable form is the Sunnah. Both constitute the religion of Islam. Absence of either disfigures the religion and fells the edifice of Islam.

1.6 Mutual Harmony of the Qur'ān and the Sunnah

The Sunnah and the holy Qur'ān are not bound in an accidental interrelation. Their interconnection, on the contrary, is natural and logical. Human life involves innumerable issues in its diverse spheres which cannot be exhaustively recorded in a single book. It requires a whole library of books to record even a part of these issues.

Many things, for example, cannot be explained verbally. They require practical example. Without practical form and example, they do not provide concrete and observable guidance. Such issues, as call for a practical manifestation, cannot even be communicated verbally. Therefore, the holy Prophet (sws) set practical examples in order to clarify them. After the demise of the Prophet (sws), this responsibility was transferred to his Companions (rta). Later, the righteous and pious people of the ummah, the witnesses to God on earth, fulfilled this duty. It is incumbent upon the piety and all those who rise to work for the religion of God to carefully observe the Sunnah themselves including things that are not seemingly very important and to teach the generality to adhere to them.

1.7 Nature and Scope of the Sunnah

The Sunnah relates only to the practical aspects of human life. It deals only with the religious practices. Muslim beliefs, history and occasion of revelation of the Qur'ānic verses do not form the Sunnah.

1.8 The Sunnah is not based on Aḥādīth

The Sunnah is not based on aḥādīth which can either be true or false. The Sunnah, on the contrary, is based on the perpetual practice of the ummah. All the Muslim generations, from the Prophet (sws) to us, have followed it without a break.

Historicity of the Qur'ān is established by its generality-to-generality transmission as the word of mouth. The Book has been first transferred from the Prophet (sws) to the generation of his Companions (rta) who passed it on to the next generation with consensus. This process of continuous transmission of the Qur'ān has continued in each generation of the Muslim ummah till it has reached us. The Sunnah too has been transmitted through generality-to-generality by practical adherence of the entire generation in each successive layer. We have, for example, not adopted Prayer and ḥajj because we have learnt from some individual narrators (āḥād) that the Prophet (sws) practiced and taught these worship rituals. We have, on the contrary, followed these practices because the Prophet (sws) performed and instituted them in the generation of the Companions (rta). The successors to the Companions (rta) learnt these from the Companions (rta) and the coming generation learnt from the successors, so on and so forth, till these reached us. The corroboratory evidence for these practices, found in the major ḥadīth works, is an additional support for them. If a ḥadīth narrative concerning a practice, current among Muslims, accords with the practice of the ummah, that is acceptable. If, however, it contradicts any established practice then the mutawātir practice of the ummah shall prevail. However, we will try to reinterpret the ḥadīth contradicting the Sunnah so as it is made in accord with the practice of the ummah. If we fail to reconcile between the Sunnah and a particular ḥadīth, in any way, we have to abandon the individual narrative for the agreed upon concurrent practice. We prefer the Sunnah over aḥādīth because the isolated ḥadīth reports are only probably true. The Sunnah, on the contrary, is absolutely true and certain source of religious knowledge.

This fact about the historicity of the Ḥadīth was clear on the Mālikī (Imām Mālik and his followers) scholars. They preferred the practice of the people of Madīnah ('amal ahl al-Madīnah) over individual aḥādīth. They believed that the practice of the community of the people of Madīnah is absolutely certain. They usually introduce such a practice as follows: al-sunnatu 'indanā hākadhā (the established practice with us is this). The followers of Imām Abū Ḥanīfah do not attach much importance to the individual narratives on this very basis either.

The perpetual practical adherence of the ummah in this context is based on the practice of the Prophet (sws), the Rightly Guided Caliphs (khulafā' al-rāshidūn), and the Companions (rta) as a community. The Prophet (sws) said:

It is upon you to follow my practice and that of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. (Ibn Mājah, No: 42)

The Companions (rta) of the Prophet (sws) were the first recipient of the religion and the first who practiced the religious teachings. They received the religion from the Prophet (sws) and communicated it to the world. That is why their practice is accepted and acknowledged as based on the Prophet (sws). Herds of people that join together to innovate practices and observe them as religious rites, in the present times, are innovators. The Prophet (sws) condemned falsehood, fabrication and bid'ah (innovation) introduced into the religion as waywardness leading to Hell.

1.9 A Question to the Munkirīn-i Sunnah[9]

Recently a group of people have emerged who admit authority of the Qur'ān and reject the authority of the Sunnah. Their view as well as the logic behind it is incomprehensible. What has made the Qur'ān absolutely authentic is that it has reached us through generality-to-generality as the word of mouth (tawātur-i qawlī). Historical authenticity of the Sunnah is established by a similar process, the practical adherence and perpetual practice of the entire generations from the Prophet (sws) to us (tawātur-i 'amalī). The intermediary generations of the believers worked as vehicle for the transmission of both of these sources. Having rejected the authenticity of the Sunnah, the rejecters of the Sunnah, cannot validly claim that the Qur'ān is the Book of God received from the Prophet Muḥammad (sws), for there is no difference between the Qur'ān and the Sunnah as far as historical authenticity and the vehicle of transmission from the Prophet (sws) to us is concerned.

It is, therefore, extremely important to grasp the difference between the term ḥadīth and sunnah. Disregard for this difference between the two sources has led many people to take the entire corpus of the Sunnah as spurious. They rent asunder the whole edifice of the religion when they noticed that a few individual narratives failed to sustain historical investigation. Initially the rejecters found faults with and cast doubts on the ḥadīth literature. These doubts were then extended to the Sunnah itself. This is in spite of the fact that the Qur'ān and the Sunnah are equally authentic and the rejection of either entails negation of the other.

Those alive to the history of the movement of rejection of the Sunnah know that it originated in some questions over a few unexplainable narratives. Later on, the scholars entered polemical debates on the issue and, in the frenzy of hot debate for their position, lost track of the difference between the Ḥadīth and Sunnah. Neither the attackers realized what they were really felling nor did the defenders were aware of what they were defending. They were spending their energies in fighting undefined borders. The debate became an end in itself. This unawareness of the truth caused great harms to both the parties. Subsequently, the claim of the rejecters bordered on the rejection of Islam itself. The defenders of the authority and authenticity of the Ḥadīth, too, by forgetting the difference between the two sources, exposed the Sunnahto serious questions. They rendered the firm bases of the Sunnah vulnerable to the attack of the rejecters.

1.10 Different Paradigmatic forms of a Single Practice

Many people are, likewise, not appreciative of the fact that there could be more than one valid way of performing a single religious practice. Different sunan (plural of sunnah) can be instituted for a single religious issue. Owing to the failure to appreciate this fact the followers of the Sunnah were divided into different factions, all of which declared each other as rejecters of the Sunnah. Had they viewed the matter justly, they would have easily learnt that the holy Prophet (sws) could have introduced different sunan regarding a single issue.

Many aḥādīth show that at the occasion of the sermon of the final ḥajj, the holy Prophet (sws) took a seat and received the delegations from different tribes. People came to him and sought his guidance regarding their performances of the ḥajj rituals. A believer would explain that he had performed a certain ḥajj ritual in a particular way. The Prophet (sws) would tell him that there was nothing wrong (lā ḥaraj). Still another person would inquire about the status of his method of performing the same ritual which would be different. The Prophet (sws) would tell him that his method of performance was also correct and valid. He did not incur any sin. People continued swarming to him and seeking his decision on the ways they performed certain rituals. The Prophet (sws) invariably approved the practice of all and did not, as far as I know, reject the action reported by any pilgrim.

This shows that all of these pilgrims practiced the ḥajj rituals differently. Yet the Prophet (sws) approved of their way of performance. Their acts fell within the acceptable Sunnah. This means that it is acceptable to perform a religious obligation differently while observing the spirit and essence of the ritual or practice. It cannot be termed deviance.

We know that aḥādīth give different information regarding the tashahhud (reciting certain supplications while sitting in the last part of the Prayer). All aḥādīth on this issue have been ascribed to great Companions (rta) with extraordinary insight in the legal matters. Most of these aḥādīth prescribe different supplications for the occasion of tashahhud. Yet, however, the essence and spirit of all is the same. Let us suppose that someone adopts the wording for the supplication reported by 'Umar (rta) or Ibn-i 'Umar (rta) and does not recite what has been ascribed to 'Ᾱ'ishah (rta). Would it be appropriate to declare that he deviated from the Sunnah? Certainly not! One can no doubt argue on the authenticity of any of these aḥādīth and one can validly declare that this narrative is more authentic than that. One cannot, however, declare any of these supplications a deviation from the Sunnah.

I believe the same is the case of loudly uttering the formula 'āmīn after reciting Sūrah al-Fātiḥah (Q 1) or on hearing the imām complete the sūrah in the Prayer. Similar is the status of folding one's hands on the chest or letting them fall free in the Prayer. There are ample indicators, rather evidences, proving each an authentic sunnah. Owing to external factors, which cannot be taken up here for want of brevity, some of these practices got currency in certain cities while others were adopted in some other cities and regions. We cannot exclude any of these from the list of the acceptable normative sunan. One can, at best, declare some of these are more stressed (mu'akkad) methods of carrying out the relevant ritual. There is no point in rejecting any of these methods for they cannot be validly declared a deviation from normative Sunnah.


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