The Sunnah And Its Place In Islamic Legislation

This article covers The Sunnah And Its Place In Islamic Legislation.

The science of hadith deals with Prophet Muhammad’s life, especially his words and actions, and the actions he approved of in others. In this section, we will restrict ourselves to his own words and actions. These words and their meanings are his alone, for they are not in the Qur’an, the Recited Revelation and whose meaning and wording belong to God exclusively. His actions include those whose rule and authority we are obliged to follow as laws, and his personal affairs, which are a source of spiritual reward and blessing if followed.

The science of fiqh (Islamic law) does not concern itself with the Prophet’s personal affairs. The fuqaha’ (jurists) consider that if those affairs touch upon the voluntary and purposed acts, they should be dealt with under the relevant law. However, if they are matters of the Prophet’s personal likes and dislikes, which are not a basis for legislation, they are of no concern to the jurists. According to the muhaddithun (scholars of Hadith [Traditionists]), everything related to the Messenger is included in the meaning of Hadith (Tradition) and concerns them.

The Sunnah is the record of the Messenger’s every act, word, and confirmation, as well as the second source of Islamic legislation and life (the Qur’an is the first one). All scholars of religious sciences, and sometimes those of the natural scientists, use it to establish the principles of their disciplines and to solve difficulties. The Qur’an and authentic prophetic Traditions enjoin Muslims to follow the Sunnah.

The Qur’an and the Sunnah are inseparable. The Sunnah clarifies the ambiguities in the Qur’an by expanding upon what is mentioned only briefly in it, specifies what is unconditional, enables generalizations from what is specifically stated, and par­ticularizations from what is generally stated.

For example, how to pray, fast, give alms, and make pilgrimage was established and expounded in the Sunnah. So were such principles or legislation that no one can inherit from the Prophet, killers cannot inherit from their victims, the meat of domestic donkeys and wild animals cannot be eaten, and men cannot marry a wife’s female cousins if she is still living. Indeed, the Sunnah is relevant to all aspects of Islam, and Muslims must design their lives according to it. For this reason, it has been studied and transmitted to each new generation with almost the same care as the Qur’an.

Madinah Religion Hajj Muhammad Mosque

Muhammad Mosque

The Messenger ordered his Companions to obey his Sunnah absolutely. He spoke distinctly, so they could understand and memorize his words, and encouraged them to convey his every word to future generations. Sometimes he even urged them to write his words down, for: “Whatever I say is true.” The Companions were fully attentive to the Prophet’s words and deeds and showed a great desire to mold their lives to his, even in the smallest details. They regarded his every word and deed as a Divine trust to which they must adhere and follow as closely as possible. Viewing his words as Divine gifts, they internalized, preserved, and transmitted them.

As truthfulness is the cornerstone of the Islamic character, the Companions did not lie. Just as they did not distort or alter the Qur’an, they did their best to preserve the Traditions and entrust them to future generations by either memorizing them or writing them down. Among the Hadith compilations made during the time of the Companions, three are very famous: Al-Sahifa al-Sadiqa by ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, Al-Sahifa al-Sahiha by Hammam ibn Munabbih, and Al-Majmu‘ by Zayd ibn ‘Ali ibn Husayn.

The Companions were extremely conscientious in relating the Traditions. For example, ‘A’isha and ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar would relate them word for word, not changing even one letter. Ibn Mas’ud and Abu al-Darda’ would tremble, as if feverish, when asked to report a Tradition. Caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (ruled 717-20 CE) ordered that the orally preserved and circulated individual Tradition compilations be written down. Such illustrious figures as Sa‘id ibn al-Musayyib, Sha‘bi, ‘Alqama, Sufyan al-Thawri, and Zuhri pioneered this sacred task. They were followed by the greatest specialists, who were entirely focused on the Traditions’ accurate transmittal as well as studying their meaning, wording, and their narrators’ careful critiques.

Thanks to these Traditionists, we have the second source of Islam in its original purity. Only through studying the Prophet’s life and then conforming our own to it can we gain God’s good pleasure and travel the way leading to Paradise. The greatest saints receive their light from this “sun” of guidance, Prophet Muhammad, and send it to those in darkness so that they may find their way.

The Sunnah And Its Role

Sunnah literally means “a conduct and a good or evil path to be followed.” This is the meaning used in the following hadith:

Those who establish a good path in Islam receive the reward of those who follow it, without any decrease in their reward. Those who establish an evil path in Islam are burdened with the sins of those who follow it, without any decrease in their burden.1

This term has different terminological connotations according to each group of Traditionists, methodologists, and jurists. Traditionists view it as including everything connected to the religious commandments reported from the Messenger and categorized, according to the Hanafi legal school (followers of Abu Hanifa), as obligations, necessities, practices particular to or encouraged by the Prophet as recommended and desirable.

Methodologists consider it to be every word, deed, and approval of the Messenger as related by his Companions. Jurists, who approach it as the opposite of innovation in religion, consider it a synonym for hadith. They use it for the Prophet’s words, deeds, and approvals, all of which provide a basis for legislation and for categorizing people’s actions.

Derived from the word haddatha (to inform), hadith literally means “a tiding or information.” Over time, it has assumed the meaning of every word, deed, and approval ascribed to the Messenger. Ibn Hajar says: “According to the Shari‘a, the Hadith is everything related to the Messenger.”

Another literal meaning is something that takes place with­in time. This is why some scholars of fine discernment write that hadith is that which is not Divine, eternal, or without beginning in time. This fine line separates Hadith from the Qur’an, as the latter is Divine, and eternal, and without beginning in time. The Messenger distinguished his words from the Qur’an: “It is two things only, nothing else: the Word and guidance. The best word is the Word of God, and the best guidance is the guidance of Muhammad.”2

Categories Of The Sunnah

The Sunnah is divided into three categories: verbal, practical, and based on approval.

  1. The Verbal Sunnah

This category consists of the Messenger’s words, which provide a basis for many religious commandments. To cite a few examples:

  • “No bequest to the heir.”3 In other words, people cannot bequeath any of their wealth to their heirs, since they will naturally inherit the bulk of the estate. A bequest can be made to the poor or some social service institutions.
  • “Don’t harm (others), and don’t return harm for harm.”4That is, do not engage in any negative and damaging behavior toward others, and do not retaliate against them by returning bad for bad.
  • “A tenth will be given (out of crops grown in fields) watered by rain or rivers; but a twentieth (out of those grown in fields) watered by people (irrigation or water­ing).”5 The Qur’an enjoins charity, but goes into no detail about how to do so correctly. All such regulations were established by the Sunnah.
  • “A sea is that of which the water is clean and the dead animals are lawful to eat.”6 He gave this response when someone asked him if wudu’ could be done with sea­water. This has provided a basis for many other rulings.
  1. The Practical Sunnah

The Qur’an usually lays down only general rules and principles. For example, it enjoins prayer and pilgrimage but does not describe in detail how to perform them. The Messenger, taught by God through inspiration or through Gabriel, provided this information through his actions. His life was one long, unique example to be followed by all Muslims. For example, he led the daily prayers before his Companions five times a day and ordered them to pray as he prayed.7

  1. The Sunnah Based on Approval

The Messenger corrected his Companions’ mistakes usually by ascending the pulpit and asking: “Why has somebody done this?”8 When he saw something agreeable in them, he gave his approval either explicitly or by keeping silent. For example:

  • Two Companions traveling in the desert could not find enough water for wudu’ before praying, and so used sand (tayammum). When they found water later on before the prayer’s time had passed, one of them performed wudu’ and repeated the prayer, and the other did not. When they asked the Messenger about it later, he told the one who had not repeated the prayer: “You acted in accordance with the Sunnah.” Then, he turned to the other one and said: “For you, there is double reward.”9
  • The Messenger ordered a march upon the Banu Qurayza immediately after the Battle of the Trench. He said: “Hurry up! We’ll perform the afternoon prayer there.” Some Companions, concluding that they should hasten and pray over there started out without delay. Others understood that they were to hasten to the Banu Qurayza’s territory only, and that they could pray before departing. The Messenger approved of both interpretations.10
Traditions of Muhammad Called Hadith

The books of Hadith.
Traditions of Muhammad Called Hadith

The Sunnah And The Quran

The Sunnah is the main source of our religious life. It is promoted and encouraged by the Qur’an:

He Who raised among the unlettered ones a Messenger from them, reciting to them His revela­tions, purifies them and instructs them in the Book and the Wisdom (62:2).

According to most Qur’anic interpreters and Traditionists, the Wisdom signifies the Sunnah. The Qur’an, being a miraculous exposition, contains nothing superfluous and does not exceed the proper terms. As Wisdom comes after Book, it must be something different. The Book is the Qur’an, and the Wisdom is the Sunnah showing how the Qur’an is to be applied to our daily lives.

The Qur’an commands absolute obedience to the Messengers, for they have been sent to guide people to truth in every sphere of their lives. Our loyalty is to God, Who sent His Messenger and told us to obey him:

We have not sent a Messenger save to be obeyed by God’s leave (4:64), and: O you who believe! Obey God and His Messenger, and do not turn away from him (8:20).

Obedience to God means unconditional obedience to what has been revealed in the Qur’an. Obedience to the Messenger means following his way of life as closely as possible by obeying what is enjoined and prohibited in the Qur’an and by the Messenger. The Sunnah is a comprehensively detailed account of his life. He told his community: “Take care! I have been given the Book and its like together with it.”11

As stated in the Qur’an (8:20), Muslims must not turn away from the Messenger. Therefore, disobeying, belittling, or criticizing the Sunnah amounts to heresy or even apostasy. Many other verses emphasize the necessity of following the Sunnah, such as:

O you who believe! Obey God and obey the Messenger and those in authority from among you (4:59).

The verse stresses obedience to God and to the Messenger. The repetition of obey in the imperative mood indicates that the Messenger is authorized to command or forbid, and that Muslims must do what he says. Besides, where obedience to those Muslims in authority is ordered, the Prophet has a far greater right to be obeyed.

Another verse states:

Obey God and His Messenger and do not dispute with one another, lest you should be dissolved (dispersed) and your strength fade away; and be steadfast (8:46).

Muslim strength and unity lie in submission to God and His Messenger. The Messenger established the Sunnah by living the Qur’an, which means that it is the only way his community can follow. Based on this, we can say that the Sunnah is both more comprehensive than the Qur’an and indispensable for leading an upright life in Islamic terms.

Muslims can obey God and show their love for Him only by obeying the Messenger or by following his Sunnah:

Say (O Muhammad): “If you love God, follow me so that God loves you” (3:31);

Surely there is for you in the Messenger an excellent example for him who aspires to God and the Hereafter, and mentions God oft (33:21);

and many other verses. Those who claim to love God or that God loves them, despite their non-adherence to the Sunnah, are seriously deluded and astray.

Muslims must cling to the Sunnah if they want to remain on the Straight Path and avoid deviation. For example: One day a woman said to ‘Abd Allah ibn Mas‘ud: “I have heard that you call down God’s curse upon women who tattoo their bodies, pluck their facial hair, force their teeth apart in order to look more beautiful, and who change the creation of God.”12 Ibn Mas‘ud answered: “All of this is found in the Qur’an.” The woman objected: “I swear by God that I have read the entire Qur’an, but I couldn’t find anything related to this matter.” Ibn Mas‘ud told her: “Our Prophet called God’s curse upon women who wear wigs, who join somebody’s hair to theirs, and who have tattoos on their bodies. Haven’t you read:

Whatever the Messenger brings you, adopt it; whatever he forbids you, refrain from it (59:7)?”13

The Qur’an also declares:

Nay, by your Lord, they will never become believers until they choose you as judge to settle the matters in dispute between them. (4:65)

The Sunnah In The Traditions

The way of the Prophet is the way of God. As the Sunnah is the way of the Prophet, those who reject it are, in essence, rejecting (and disobeying) God. As the Prophet stated:

“Whoever obeys me, obeys God; whoever disobeys me, disobeys God.”14 Such disobedience is “rewarded” with Hell: “My nation will enter Paradise, except those who rebel.” When asked who these rebels were, the Prophet answered: “Whoever obeys me will enter Paradise; whoever disobeys me rebels.”15

The Sunnah links all past, present, and future Muslims. It also enables Muslims to maintain their unity, as it forms a unique culture and system. Concerning this, the Messenger declared: “Those who survive me will witness many disputes and disagreements. Therefore, follow my way and the way of my rightly-guided and rightly-guiding successors. Hold firm to that way—cling to it with your teeth.”16

Following the Sunnah, on both the individual and the collective level, becomes vital when Islam is attacked and Muslims lose their supremacy. The Messenger stated that “at a time when the Muslim community breaks with Islam and consequently disintegrates, the one who holds firm to the Sunnah gains the reward of a martyr.”17 Given this, those who criticize it should be asked, as the Qur’an asks unbelievers: Where are you headed?

Cami Minaret Islam Architectural Religion Trip

Al Masjid an Nabawi

The Sunnah’s Functions

The Sunnah has two main functions. First, it enjoins and prohibits, lays down the principles related to establishing all religious obligations and necessities, and determines what is lawful or unlawful. Second, it interprets the Qur’an.

In each daily prescribed prayer, we recite:

Guide us to the Straight Path, to the path of those you have blessed, not of those who incurred (Your) wrath, nor of the misguided (1:6-7).

The verses mention, but do not specify, two groups of people. According to the Prophet, those who incurred God’s wrath are Jews who have gone astray, and the misguided are Christians who have gone astray.18

The Sunnah and Its Place in Islamic Legislation

The Jews killed many of their Prophets and caused trouble in many places. Although they had once followed Divine guidance and guided others to the Straight Path (during the times of Moses, David, and Solomon), over time many of them went astray and incurred both God’s wrath and public ignominy. Those who follow this way also are included in those who incurred (Your) wrath. Such Jews are condemned harshly in the Bible as well. In fact, the Bible is much harsher toward them than the Qur’an. In many verses, the Qur’an reproaches such Jews and Christians very mildly and compassionately.

At first, the Christians obeyed Jesus and followed his way despite severe persecution. They heroically resisted all forms of hypocrisy and Roman oppression. But over time, many came under the influence of various Middle Eastern religions and philosophies as well as Roman paganism. By the time Christianity became the Roman Empire’s official religion, it already was divided into many sects and had more than 300 Gospels in circulation. Although many remained devoted to the original creed of Jesus, many others contaminated these pure teachings with borrowed elements. The Qur’an therefore describes them as the misguided.

By making the above interpretation, the Prophet explained how people who had been blessed with Divine guidance could go astray and end up deserving God’s wrath. Thus, he warned Muslims not to follow such Jews and Christians.

Out of many examples showing how the Sunnah interprets the Qur’an, we also cite the following:

  • When the verse: Those who believed and did not mix their belief with wrongdoing: for them is security and they are those who are truly guided (6:82) was revealed, the Companions, well aware what wrongdoing meant, asked the Messenger fearfully: “Is there one among us who has never done wrong?” The Messenger explained: “It’s not as you think. It’s as Luqman said to his son: Don’t associate any partners with God; surely, associating partners with God is a grave wrongdoing” (31:13).19
  • ‘A’isha and Ibn Mas‘ud are of the opinion that the mid-time prayer in: Attend the prayers without any omission and the mid-time prayer (2:238) is the afternoon prayer. Once ‘A’isha ordered her servant to write a copy of the Qur’an for her and reminded her: “When you come to the verse: Attend the prayers without any omission, and the mid-time prayer, inform me.” When this verse was to be copied out, ‘A’isha dictated to her servant: “Attend the prayers without any omission, and the mid-time prayer, the afternoon prayer,” and added: “This is what I heard from the Messenger.”20 Although there are some other interpretations, ‘A’isha and Ibn Mas‘ud were certain that it was the afternoon prayer.

In addition to interpreting the Qur’an’s ambiguities, the Sunnah fills in the details about those subjects that the Qur’an mentions only briefly. For example, the Qur’an orders Muslims to pray properly, but does not explain how they should pray. Although some leading interpreters deduce the prayer times from such verses such as:

Perform the prayer correctly at the two ends of the day and nigh of the night; surely the good deeds remove the evil deeds (11:114),

the exact prayer time was established by the Prophet as follows:

On two occasions, Archangel Gabriel led me in the five daily prayers at the Ka‘ba. On the first time, he prayed the noon prayer at noon, when an item’s shadow was only as long as its base. When the shadow was as long as the actual item, he prayed the afternoon prayer. He prayed the evening prayer when it was time for a person to break the fast. He prayed the late evening (or night) prayer when dusk disappeared, and the dawn (or morning) prayer when those who intend to fast can no longer eat or drink. The second time, he prayed the noon prayer when an item’s shadow was as long as the actual item, and prayed the afternoon prayer when it was twice as long as the actual item. He prayed the evening prayer at the same time he had prayed it previously. He prayed the night prayer after one-third of the night had passed, and the dawn prayer when it was lighter and the sun had still not risen. Then he turned to me and said: “O Muhammad, each of the five daily prayers should be performed between these two periods of time, as the Prophets before you did it.”21

The Messenger also taught his community everything related to prayer: its conditions; all obligatory, necessary, and commend­able acts that validate and ennoble it; and all acts that invalidate and damage it. He passed on, both through words and actions, all that they needed to know about worship. This all-inclusive term is not limited to the actual prayers, but also includes such areas as fasting, alms-giving, pilgrimage, and many more. Just as he told his followers to “pray as you see me pray,” he told them to “learn from me the rites and ceremonies of pilgrimage”22 after he actually performed it with his Companions. If the Qur’an had gone into such exhaustive detail on such matters, it would have been many times its present size.

The Sunnah also restricts general laws and commandments in the Qur’an. For example, it lays down general principles of inheritance. When the Prophet’s daughter Fatima went to Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, and asked for her inheritance, Abu Bakr replied: “I heard the Messenger say: ‘The community of the Prophets does not leave anything to be inherited. What we leave is for charity.’”23 This hadith excludes the Prophets and their children from the laws of inheritance. Likewise, the Messenger decreed that “the killer (of his testator) would be disinherited.”24 In other words, if someone kills his or her parents, brother (sister), or uncle (aunt), they cannot inherit from them.

The Qur’an commands:

And the thief, male and female, cut off the hands of both, as a recompense for what they have earned, and a punishment exemplary from God; God is All-Mighty, All-Wise (5:38).

Whether this punishment is to be applied to every thief, or only to those who steal goods of a certain value, is not clear. Also, in:

O believers, when you stand up to pray wash your faces, and your hands up to elbows… (5:6),

the hand extends to the elbow. But the Qur’an does not mention specifically what part of the hand should be cut, nor in what circumstances this punishment should be applied. For example, during ‘Umar’s caliphate there was a period of famine, and he did not apply this punishment.

The Qur’an decrees:

O you who believe! Consume not your goods among yourselves in vanity [through theft, usury, bribery, hoarding, and so on], except it be trade by mutual agreement (4:29).

Islam encourages trade as a livelihood, as long as it is carried out according to Islamic law. One condition, as stated in the verse, is mutual agreement. However, the Messenger decreed:

“Don’t sell fruits until their amount is definite in the tree [so that the amount to be given as alms can be determined]”25 and: “Don’t go to meet peasants outside the market to buy their goods [Let them earn the market value of their goods].”26

In sum, the Qur’an contains general principles that are explained by the Messenger and then applied by him to daily life. God allowed His Messenger to issue rulings, as necessary, and ordered the believers:

Whatever the Messenger brings you, adopt it; whatever he forbids you, refrain from it (59:7).

By M. Fethullah Gulen


1.  Muslim, “Zakat,” 69; Ibn Maja, “Muqaddima,”  203.

2.  Ibn Maja, “Muqaddima,”  7.

3. Ibn Maja, “Wasaya,” 6; Tirmidhi, “Wasaya,” 5.

4. Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 1:313.

5. Tirmidhi, “Zakat,” 14; Bukhari, “Zakat,” 55.

6. Abu Dawud, “Tahara,” 41; Tirmidhi, “Tahara,” 52; Nasa’i, “Tahara,” 47. Generally, the Qur’an forbids eating animals that were not slaughtered according to Islamic rules. The Sunnah, however, restricts this general rule (commandment) by allowing the consumption of sea animals that die in water.

7. Bukhari, “Adhan,” 18; Ibn Hanbal,  5:53.

8. Bukhari, “Salat,” 70; Muslim, “Nikah,” 5.

9. Darimi, “Tahara,” 65; Abu Dawud, “Tahara,” 126.

10. Darimi, “Maghazi,” 30; “Khawf,” 5.

11. Abu Dawud, “Sunnah,” 5.

12. This covers such cosmetic surgery procedures as changing the shape of the nose or lips, inserting breast implants,  or somehow altering other bodily features through cosmetic surgery to look more beautiful.  Such operations are allowed only when medically necessary, as in the case of severe burns or deformity.

13. Muslim, “Libas,” 120.

14. Bukhari, “Ahkam,” 1; Ibn Maja, “Muqaddima,”  1.

15. Bukhari, “I‘tisam,” 2; Ibn Hanbal, 2:361.

16. Abu Dawud, “Sunnah,” 5; Tirmidhi, “‘Ilm,” 16; Ibn Maja, “Muqaddima,”  6.

17. Abu Nu‘aym, Hilya’, 8:200; Daylami, Musnad al-Firdaws, 4:198.

18. Tirmidhi, “Tafsir al-Qur’an,” 2; Tabari, “Tafsir,” 1:61,  64.

19. Bukhari, “Tafsir,” 31/1.

20. Tirmidhi, “Tafsir al-Qur’an,” 3.

21. Abu Dawud, “Salat,” 2; Tirmidhi, “Mawaqit,” 1.

22. Nasa’i, “Manasik,” 220;  Ibn Hanbal, 3:366.

23. Bukhari, “I‘tisam,” 5; “Khums,”  1; Muslim, “Jihad,” 51; Ibn Hanbal,  2:463.

24. Tirmidhi, “Fara’id,” 17.

25. Bukhari, “Buyu‘,” 82; Muslim, “Buyu‘,” 51.

26. Muslim, “Buyu‘,” 5:14-17.

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