There are two extremes within the Muslims today;
both would merge the Hadith and Sunnah but one would claim that they play a
vital role in forming the Shariah (Islamic law) whereas the other assert that
they have no importance and the Holy Qur’an in itself is complete and sufficient
to shape up the Religion. In this paper, we would discuss the concepts of Hadith
and Sunnah, elaborate the difference between them and try to settle the argument
somewhere in between these two extremes.
“The term Hadith (literally: ‘a saying’ or ‘something new’) is defined as the
individual-to-individual narratives ascribed to the Holy Prophet (peace be upon
him) regarding his sayings, actions, expressed or tacit approvals and his
Some scholars apply the word Hadith to connote the actions or sayings of the
companions of the Prophet and even their successors (peace be upon them all).
However, more precisely the word Athr (i.e. relic) is used to connote this
sense. The Hadith literature consists of voluminous books of narratives compiled
by different scholars during the second and third century AH. The authenticity
of each hadith is determined by the personal principles of acceptance or
rejection of the compilers themselves.”
(Introduction to the Hadith, Module 1, www.studying-islam.org)
Hadith is not an independent source of the Shariah as it does not add to the
content of the Qur’an and Sunnah but merely “explains” these two and is totally
dependent on them for its survival. The fact that we cannot, cent percent,
guarantee the Hadith record does not mean that we should turn our backs on this
great treasure of wisdom. The reasons may be summarized as follows:
1. The scholars of the science of Hadith (for example, Imam Muslim, Imam Bukhari,
Imam Malik (peace be upon them all)) have put in tremendous efforts to
distinguish the true Ahadith1 from the fabricated ones. These are such
outstanding and worthwhile efforts that we can be highly proud of them.
2. The Ahadith help a great deal to understand the directives of the Qur’an. For
example, the state of the Arab society described in the Hadith literature
enables us to understand the real purpose of delaying the commandment for
breaking the custom of slavery.
3. They are the only source through which we may approach the biography and
lifestyle of the Prophet (peace be upon him).
4. They inform us of the uswa-e-hasana2 of the Prophet (peace be upon him). For
example, the way he performed ablution in an ideal manner out of the Qur’anic
order for ablution (5:6).
5. They reveal to us the Holy Prophet’s (peace be upon him) understanding and
interpretation of the Qur’anic phrases. (See the example under point 4 in “The
6. They enlighten the background in which the Qur’an was revealed. This
background, which includes the geographical circumstances of the Quranic
revelations, is extremely important to understand the true essence and meaning
of the different Quranic directives. For example, when the Qur’an orders the
Prophet (peace be upon him) to tell his wives, daughters and the wives of the
believers to lengthen their garments (33:59), the hadith tells us that the
Muslim women of Madina3 were facing an “alarming situation” for which this verse
was revealed. This, in addition to the Quranic context itself in which this
verse is present, gives a notion that the women living in the normal
circumstances may be exempted from the applicability of this verse.
7. They inform us of the lives of the Prophet’s companions (peace be upon them
all) who, undoubtedly, are the heroes of the Islamic history for committing
their lives entirely to Allah’s Religion.
There may be many other reasons to embrace the science of Hadith but, we
believe, the above are already good enough to prove the point.
We wonder why Ahadith are being called “a fabricated source”. This really is a
baseless charge. The scholars of Hadith have done a tremendous job in
distinguishing the true ahadith from the fabricated ones. They have had used
excellent set of laws in scrutinizing each of the hadith that was ascribed to
the Prophet (peace be upon him).
A number of books (for example: Tabaqatal-Kubra of Ibn Sa‘ad, Tarikhal-Kabir of
Imam Bukhari, Tabaqat-al Huffaz of Imam Dhahabi (peace be upon them all)) were
compiled merely on the life history of each narrator to elaborate his or her
truthfulness, moral values, memory and understanding. The Hadith scholars would
not take the hadith from the narrator who is doubted, even a little, for his or
her truthfulness or moral values. Although they would take it from the one with
weak memory and understanding but would never warrant it as sahi, i.e. excellent
or very reliable.
Allah T’ala has entitled the Qur’an as Furqan – something that distinguishes
between wrong and right. Therefore, each hadith that was ascribed to the Prophet
(peace be upon him) was checked in the light of the Holy Qur’an. No hadith was
accepted which contradicted either the Qur’an or Sunnah or established facts.
Another point that is worth noticing here is that the Hadith scholars did not
have to filter out the true ahadith from among the gossips scattered around
everywhere, unsystematically, like the autumn leaves. There was, at least, some
system courtesy of which the ahadith were present with different narrators
through a teacher-student chain. A teacher would teach some ahadith to his
student and that student to his student, so on and so forth, until the last
narrator from whom the Hadith scholars would pick the Hadith for scrutinizing.
We need to appreciate the fact that no record of the history has been
scrutinized so intensely and widely as the Hadith. We can be proud of the
efforts being put for preserving this record in our literature. The state of
each hadith is so precisely measured by the Hadith scholars that we know about
almost every hadith if it is excellent or good or weak or fabricated. Ever since
the most authentic Hadith books are compiled, they have been thoroughly examined
by thousands of the preceding Hadith scholars almost all of which accepted their
excellence. Although some ahadith, claimed as sahih in these books, have been
criticized for their authenticity still they are a few and well known to the
Hadith scholars of all times.
The point that people accept certain ahadith and reject the others to back their
sects is quite true. It is also true that people extensively use weak or
fabricated ahadith for preaching and solving religious conflicts. Such matters
should be criticized but it does not mean that we should separate ourselves from
the science of Hadith itself. We know that people even change the meaning of the
Qur’an in a way that suits their interests; does it imply that we should turn
our backs on the Qur’an as well? Not at all! If someone truly wants to
scholastically benefit from the Hadith, it offers a treasure of wisdom and
knowledge. It even helps enhance the understanding of the Qur’anic directives as
The fact that the Hadith does not add to the content of the Religion, preserved
within the Qur’an and Sunnah, but only explains it makes it very safe to utilize
the Hadith as, on its basis, not even a single directive of the Qur’an or
practice of the Sunnah may be altered.
Let us now turn to the other extreme and briefly discuss the reasons why the
Hadith cannot be considered as the basic source of the Religion or a constituent
of the Shariah:
1. The Prophet (peace be upon him) did not show any keenness to preserve his
sayings or actions.
Even the exalted companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) like Abu-Bakar
and Umar (peace be upon them) did not show any interest to preserve the Hadith.
Had Hadith been a basic source, the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his
companions (peace be upon them all) would have made extraordinary efforts to
preserve it as they did in the case of the Qur’an and Sunnah.
2. The ahadith, by and large, do not reflect the exact words and actions of the
Prophet (peace be upon him) but the words or actions of him as understood or
perceived by the individual Hadith narrators. The understanding and perception
of the individuals may be questioned and what is questioned cannot be the basic
source of the Religion because, if it were, the authenticity of the Religion in
itself would be questionable.
3. Even if a hadith is sahih, it cannot be guaranteed as cent percent true. The
maximum that could be said about a sahih hadith is that there is a highest
possibility that the Prophet (peace be upon him) would have said or done or
approved as mentioned in it. What cannot be believed to be cent percent true
should not qualify to be the basic source.
4. Unlike the Qur’an and Sunnah which were adopted and propagated by millions of
Muslims in each generation since the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him),
the Hadith books were written by the individual writers. However intelligent,
wise, trustworthy and careful these writers might be, there is always a chance
of error in the individual’s work. Therefore, this leaves a little room for the
doubt. Again, what leaves even an iota of doubt cannot be accepted as the basic
source because it would make the basis of the Religion doubtful.
5. The hadith does not only include the Religious sayings or actions of the
Prophet (peace be upon him) but his other everyday sayings, actions, personal
habits, likes and dislikes that he never asked anyone to Religiously adopt or
follow. The very point is clarified in the following Hadith:
“I am a human being, so when I command you about a thing pertaining to religion,
do accept it, and when I command you about a thing out of my personal opinion,
keep it in mind that my position is no more than a human being… For it was only
a personal opinion of mine4, and do not go after my personal opinion; but when I
say anything to you on behalf of Allah, then do accept it, for I do not
attribute a lie to Allah… You have better knowledge (of a technical skill) in
the affairs of the world.”
(Sahih Muslim no. 2361, 2362, 2363)
Beware those people who say that it is the Religious duty of every Muslim to
adopt and follow every aspect of the Holy Prophet’s (peace be upon him) life
recorded only within the Hadith books and not in the Qur’an or Sunnah! The
Prophet (peace be upon him) himself is negating this point in the above hadith.
6. The word Shariah is often confused. It does not refer to the entire content
of the Religion, as perceived, but only to that part which defines the
“Religious Law”. Even the part of the Qur’an which explicates this law is
limited; how come whole of the Hadith record may be seen as a constituent of it?
Some important facts about the Sunnah are summarized as under:
1. How widely may be used as synonyms, there is a significant distinction
between the terms, Hadith and Sunnah, that must be recognized to correctly
understand the status of each in Islam.
Unlike the Haidth, the term Sunnah does not refer to each saying, action,
approval or the personal description of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)
but only his “Religious” actions that he inherited from the Religion of the
Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) and strongly instituted among his followers
as an essential part of their faith.
The historical record of the facts like the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)
spoke Arabic, wore an Arab dress, rode the camel, kept sword etc. would come
under the term Hadith whereas the way he demonstrated to his followers how to
offer Salah (prayer), perform Hajj (pilgrimage) and keep fasts during Ramadan
would come under the term Sunnah – Salah, Hajj and Fasts being the Religious
2. The Sunan5 are the Religious Abrahamic6 traditions which were already
prevailing, in some form, in the world even before the advent of the Prophet
Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Obviously, these Sunan are older than the Qur’an itself. If a Sunnah is not
mentioned in the Qur’an (for example: circumcision of the male children or the
way Salah (prayer) be performed etc.), it does not mean that it would be
rejected as the Qur’an not only testifies the Religion of the Prophet Abraham
(peace be upon him) but orders us to follow it. The Qur’an is revealed with the
Sunan-e-Ibrahimi (the Abrahamic traditions) in its background that is why it
does not explain what is Hajj or Umrah (pilgrimage) or Salah but merely orders
people to carry out these Sunan.
In other words, people were already aware of the Sunan-e-Ibrahimi. However, the
Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) purified these Sunan from the polytheistic
spirits developed within them with time and rectified them in their supreme
The Sunan were present in all the Abrahamic Religions practiced and propagated
by the Prophets following the Prophet Abraham (peace be upon them all). However,
these Sunan should not be confused with the laws (Shariah) given to the
following Prophets (peace be upon them) by means of the different Divine Books –
the laws (for example, of the rate of the Zakah) kept changing in the eras of
the different Prophets following the Prophet Abraham (peace be upon them all)
but the Sunan (for example, of Zakah itself), always remained there.
The question why the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) adopted the Religious
Abrahimic traditions and, after corrections and additions, instituted them in
the lives of his followers as an integral part of their faith, can be answered
by means of the following verse:
“And then we revealed unto you (the command) to follow the Religion of Abraham,
who was steadfast and was not one of the polytheists.” (16:123)
3. As there is a distinction between the Hadith and Sunnah, there is a
distinction between the Qur’anic orders and Sunnah as well.
The Sunnan are independent of the Qur’an in the sense that they are older than
the Qur’an and emerge from the Prophet Abraham’s (peace be upon him) Religious
traditions which were later approved, rectified, and established into the lives
of the Muslims by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
The Qur’an orders believers to pay Zakah (alms), as they paid in the Prophet
Abraham’s (peace be upon him) time, but does not suggest its rate. The Prophet
Muhammad (peace be upon him) then, under the guidance of Allah but independent
of the Qur’an, establishes the rate of Zakah which becomes an obligatory sunnah
for every Muslim who is constrained to pay it.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) punished the thieves and adulterers and raised
sword against the deniers of the truth but none of these are sunan as they are
purely the Quranic orders that the Prophet (peace be upon him) carried out.
Though the sunan like Salah, Fasting, Hajj, Zakah and Sacrificing of animals are
also mentioned in the Qur’an but it is clear from the Qur’an itself that all of
these sunan originated from the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) when he
rectified and established the Abrahamic traditions.
More so, sunan are related to the practical aspects of life, therefore, it does
not include the basic beliefs (for example, that of oneness of Allah) mentioned
in the Qur’an.
4. Only the Qur’an and Sunnah constitute the Shariah - the Islamic law. The
Hadith does not add to it but merely comes in to explain the Islamic Shariah
stated within the Qur’an or demonstrated through the Sunnah of the Prophet
(peace be upon him).
For example, the Qur’an orders to cut off a thief’s hands (5:38); the Hadith
would explain the word sariq (male thief) and sariqah (female thief) used in the
Qur’an and warn that these words do not apply to all the thieves but only those
who fulfill certain conditions. According to the linguistic principles, the
words sariq and sariqah are adjectives and denote the thoroughness in the
characteristics of the verb they qualify.
5. The Sunnah enjoys an equal status to the Holy Qur’an in forming the Islamic
Shariah because both emanate from the same source i.e. the Holy prophet (peace
be upon him) who, by the order of the Almighty, conveyed each one with equal
care and eagerness.
Beware; he did not convey the Book alone which leaves out many practical details
but Sunnah as well which shapes the practical life of a Muslim. For example, the
Qur’an orders believers to offer salah but leaves out the details of how to do
so. The Sunnah, on the other hand, practically demonstrates of how to offer it
with all its formalities. In this way, both the Qur’an and Sunnah compliment
each other to form a complete lifestyle.
6. The Sunan instituted by the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) include the
manner in which five daily, Eid and funeral prayers are offered, the mode of
fasting in Ramadan, all rituals of Hajj, the rate and ceilings of Zakah, the
nikah (solemnization of marriage), the circumcision of male children, saying
prescribed words in the ears of the newborn, the tradition of burying the dead
after bathing and wrapping in coffin cloth, beginning every deed with Allah’s
name, greeting each other by saying Assalamo’alaikum (peace be to you) and
replying with Wa’alaikumassalam (peace be to you too), saying Alhamdulillah (all
gratitude be to Allah) upon sneezing, slaughtering animals in a specific manner
with the proclamation of Allah-o-Akbar (God is Great), shortening of nails,
cleaning of mouth, nose and teeth, abstaining from intercourse during
menstruation and afterbirth, trimming the moustache, removing the undesired hair
and washing after urination, defecation and intercourse.
7. None of these established Sunan, as claimed by some, is contrary to the Holy
Qur’an. (By this, we do not mean that all of them are explicitly mentioned in
the Book. See point 1 for clarification.)
8. The Sunan are as pure and authentic as the Qur’an itself because both, the
Qur’an and Sunnah, have reached us through the same mode of transmission, i.e.
the consensus of each generation of the Ummah7. The following paragraphs
excellently elaborate the very point:
“We have received these Sunan through the consensus of the Companions of the
Holy Prophet (peace be upon them all) and since the age of the Companions, every
subsequent generation has faithfully preserved them and handed over to the next
in large numbers. The Sunan relate to those areas of our practical lives about
which we are sure that no interruption in these practices is possible in
history. For example, in the communities, people keep on dying and children are
being born. The dead are thus washed and buried and all male children are
circumcised. It is impossible that these proceedings could have remained
suspended for any considerable time or one of the generations could have missed
them. History shows that all these practices were followed by vast majority of
each generation of Muslims. Even an attempt to affect the slightest of change or
innovation in these Sunan was strongly resisted and harshly criticized by the
The initiation of these practices by the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) and
their subsequent communication from generation to generation by hundreds of
thousands of people means that Sunan have reached down to us through Tawatur
just like the Holy Qur’an. However the mode of tawatur is different. Unlike the
oral or documentary Tawatur of the Holy Qur’an, the Sunnah has reached us
through Tawatur-i-Amli or Tawatur in practice of the Ummah.”
(Understanding the Sunnah, Module 1, www.studying-islam.org)
9. No practice, whether Religious or not, can be accepted as Sunnah except for
those that the Prophet (peace be upon him) himself explicitly introduced as his
To sum up, there is a clear distinction between the Hadith and Sunnah which must
be understood. Hadith is an important “explanatory source” for the Religious
understanding, as it explains the Qur’an and Sunnah, but still not the “basic
source” of the Religion. The basic sources, which form the Shariah, are only
two: Qur’an (the Book) and Sunnah (the practices instituted by the Prophet
Muhammad (peace be upon him)). A hadith may be questioned to be more or less
authentic but the authenticity of the Sunnah cannot be questioned because it has
come down to us through the same mode of transmission by which the Holy Qur’an
has come to us, i.e. the consensus of each generation of the Ummah since the
time of the Prophet (peace be upon him).
1. Plural of Hadith.
2. The way our dear Prophet (SAW) carried out the Quranic directives in the most
beautiful way, for example, the way he performed ablution.
3. The city where the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) lived.
4. Referring to the opinion he gave to the people of Madina about combining the
male and female date trees.
5. Plural of Sunnah.
6. Pertaining to the Prophet Abraham (SAW).
7. The whole Muslim community.
For Further Reading:
Asol-o-Mubadi (Mezaan), Javed Ahamd Ghamidi, www.ghamidi.org
The Holy Qur’an
Asol-o-Mubadi, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, www.ghamidi.org
Hadith & Sunnah Courses at: www.studying-islam.org
Sahih Muslim, Imam Muslim