The sunna (Arabic: السنة) or the tradition consists in the words, the deeds, and the consents of the Infallibles (a). These words, deeds, and consents count as one of the four sources of ijtihad (the deduction of Islamic laws in fiqh). In fact, they are the most important sources of fiqh after the Qur'an.
There is consensus among all Muslims over the reliability of the Prophet (s)'s sunna. However, Shiites believe in the reliability of the sunna of the Twelve infallible Imams (a) as well. And some Sunni Muslims believe in the reliability of the fallible companions's sunna.
If an Infallible (a) does something, it is by itself evidence of the permissibility of that action. If an Infallible (a) does not reject an act, it also reveals the permissibility of that act, provided that the Infallible (a) was aware of that act and there was no reason for him not to express his opposition to the act.
Notion and Lexicology
Lexicologists have mentioned various meanings for the word "sunna", including continuity, persistence, favorable way, procedure, and method.
In the Islamic terminologies, the term, "sunna", refers to the words, deeds, and consents of the Infallibles (a). Application of the term to the Prophet (s) is subject to a consensus by all Muslims. However, Shiite Muslims count the words, deeds, and consents of the Infallible Imams (a) as instances of the sunna. So according to Shiites, if the Prophet (s) and Infallible Imams (a) say or do something, or someone else does something of which they were aware and they endorse it or at least do not reject it as wrong, then all that counts as instances of the sunna.
Difference with Hadith
The sunna and hadith are different since the latter consists in statements that are expressive of words, deeds, and consents of the Infallibles (a), but the former consists in those very words, deeds, and consents. In other words, hadiths are just expressive of the sunna, and should not be identified with it.
After the Qur'an, the sunna is the most important source for deducing Islamic laws in jurisprudence. There are Qur'anic verses that, explicitly or implicitly, imply the reliability of the sunna:
- Qur'an 53:3-4: "... Nor does he [the Prophet] speak out of [his own] desire: (3) it is just a revelation that is revealed [to him]".
- Qur'an 59:7: "Take whatever the Apostle gives you, and relinquish whatever he forbids you".
- The spoils that Allah gave to His Apostle from the people of the townships, are for Allah and the Apostle, the relatives, and the orphans, the needy and the traveler, so that they do not circulate among the rich among you. Take whatever the Apostle gives you, and relinquish whatever he forbids you, and be wary of Allah. Indeed Allah is severe in retribution.
- Qur'an 64:12: "Obey Allah and obey the Apostle".
- Obey Allah and obey the Apostle; but if you turn away, then Our Apostle’s duty is only to communicate in clear terms.
There can be three conceivable sorts of relationships between the laws of shar'ia that come from the sunna and those coming from the Qur'an:
- The sunna might confirm the laws in the Qur'an, such as hadiths according to which saying prayers, fasting, zakat, and hajj are obligatory, and drinking wine and gambling are forbidden.
- The sunna might elaborate the laws in the Qur'an, such as hadiths expressing the parts and conditions of prayers, fasting, and hajj.
- The sunna might express laws of shari'a that were not expressed in the Qur'an, such as the laws to the effect that a murderer cannot inherit from the victim, or that one cannot marry a woman and her niece at the same time, except with the permission of the aunt.
Apparent Contradiction Between the sunna and the Qur'an
In some cases, there is an incompatibility between hadiths (which are expressive of the sunna) and the apparent meanings of the Qur'an. This apparent incompatibility leads to one of two things:
- Specification of the Qur'an with the sunna: if the sunna is known by certainty, it can specify general Quranic statements, thereby elaborating the real intention behind the relevant verses. Some of the scholars take a sunna known via al-khabar al-wahid (a hadith by one or few narrators), capable of specifying the general statements of the Qur'an.
- Abrogation of the Qur'an with the sunna: It is possible for the laws of the Qur'an to be abrogated and superseded by the sunna.
Difference with Qur'an
There are three differences between the Qur'an and the sunna:
- Unlike the sunna, the Qur'an is revealed by God as a miracle that presents a verbal challenge (tahaddi) for its opponents,
- It is known by certainty that the Qur'an is revealed by God, but most hadiths expressive of the sunna do not provide absolute certainty, since there are fake hadiths (see: Hadith Forgery),
- Most laws of shari'a are expressed in the Qur'an with a level of generality, but the sunna usually states the laws with all the details and ancillaries.
Ways of Access
There are two sorts of ways to discover the sunna: ways that yield certainty and ways that do not.
Certainty-providing ways: These are ways that certainly reveal the views of the Infallibles (a). Here are the most important such ways to access the sunna:
- A mutawatir hadith, that is, a hadith that is narrated by such a great number of people that yields certainty,
- A hadith that is not mutawatir, but there are pieces of evidence that give us certainty about the truth of the hadith,
- Consensus (ijma'),
- Rational practice,
- The practice and the common sense of Muslims where they reveal the sunna.
Non-certainty-providing ways: The only non-certainty-providing way that there are good reasons to deem reliable, and is in fact relied on by many early and later scholars of jurisprudence and principles of jurisprudence, is al-khabar al-wahid where its narrator is reliable.
The sunna—including the words, the deeds and the consents of the Infallibles (a)—reveals divine laws, be it with respect to the human nature of the Infallibles (a), such as eating, drinking, and sleeping, or their personal lives, such as business and farming, or governmental, military, and administrative issues, or the propagation of the laws of shari'a. Therefore, the sunna is a source of divine laws.
One significant issue about the sunna is what implications its different types have for the laws of shari'a.
The verbal sunna consists of the words uttered by the Prophet (s) and other Infallibles (a) on different occasions and with different motivations; one example of this is a hadith reporting the words of the Prophet (s): "indeed, the actions are matters of intentions".
The practical sunna is an action done by an Infallible (a) with the intention of introducing an Islamic law, such as wudu, prayers, and hajj. For example, the Prophet (s) is quoted as telling his companions to say prayers as he did.
If an Infallible (a) does an action, the least it implies is that the action is permissible and is not prohibited, just as an omission of an action by an Infallible (a) at least shows that the action is not obligatory. Some companions appealed to the Prophet (s)'s acts as well as his omissions to deduce certain laws of shari'a. Omissions either count as types of actions or as a separate kind of the sunna along with the words, deeds, and consents.
The consent or the endorsement of an action by an Infallible (a) is a case in which someone does or says something in the presence of an Infallible (a) and the Infallible (a) says nothing about it, where there was nothing to prevent him from doing so. This kind of silence amounts to an endorsement of that action by the Infallible. The consent or endorsement does not specify the exact type of the laws—it just shows the permissibility of action—unless it is accompanied by other evidence.
Prophet (s)'s Sunna
Ahl al-Bayt (a)'s Sunna
The Ahl al-Bayt (a)'s sunna consists in the words, deeds, and consents of the Infallibles (a), including the Twelve Imams (a)—from Imam Ali (a) to Imam al-Mahdi (a)—and Fatima al-Zahra (a). For Sunni scholars, only the Prophet (s)'s sunna is reliable, but Imamiyya scholars take the Ahl al-Bayt (a)'s sunna to be as reliable as the Prophet (s)'s.
According to Imamiyya scholars, when an Imam (a) states a law of shari'a, he is not a mere narrator of the law, nor is he a mujtahid who deduces the law from other sources. Instead, he states the real law of shari'a from their original sources through inspiration and the like. Thus their words, deeds, and consents count as sunna, rather than being mere expressions of the sunna.
The Sahaba's sunna consists in the words, deeds, and consents of the Companions of the Prophet (s). Some Sunni scholars believe that the Sahaba's sunna is reliable as a source of jurisprudence. However, Imamiyya scholars believe that the sunna of non-infallible Sahaba is not reliable.
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- Bahāʾī, Mashriq al-shamsayn, p. 22-24.
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