Sunnah: The Prophetic Paradigm

In this study, we shall begin by defining the terms ‘hadith’ and ‘Sunnah’ and the position they occupy in Islam. Subsequently, we shall state the arguments against the authenticity of hadith and present our conclusions.


Hadith, linguistically is speech/news/information. Technically, it is the sayings, actions, tacit approvals, character and circumstances of the Prophet Muhammad, Allah bless him and give him peace, his Companions [ṣaḥābah] and Followers [tāb‘īn] [S. Usmani 2003:2, Dihlawi 1368 A.H.:1, Lucknowī 1997:32-33]. It includes all narrations about the Prophet’s birth, physical appearance, and the statements, actions and silent approvals of the latter two.


 The famous Arabic dictionary, Lisān al-‘Arab, defines the word sunnah as “it is the way of acting: that is a way which was introduced by the former people, and which consequently, became normative for those who came after them”. Thus linguistically, sunnah is normative model behaviour that has attained the force of custom and law.

Technically, it is the normative and model behaviour of the Prophet Muhammad, Allah bless him and give him peace, and his Companions [ṣaḥābah], by their words [qawl], actions [f‘il] and tacit approvals [taqrīr] [Haqq n/d: 135]. This is the meaning that we will employ in this work with a capital ‘S’: i.e. Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad and the Companions as opposed to sunnah.

The Sunnah is the second source of Islamic law [Haqq n/d: 4]. The reason for this is that its source is ultimately Allah. The Sunnah is not merely the corpus of advice and sayings of a Man to his followers akin to the advice and guidance of any other leader. Rather, the Sunnah is revelation from Allah and thus partakes of all the authority of its divine provenance. In the words of the Quran:

“Whatever the Prophet gives you, accept it; and whatever he forbids you, avoid it” [59:7].

“Allah has revealed to you the Book and Wisdom, and has taught you what you knew not aforetime; the bounty of Allah to you is ever great” [4:113]

“It is he raised up a Messenger among the unlettered people, one amongst them, to recite to them His signs, to purify them, and to teach them the Book and the Wisdom, though they formerly had been in manifest error” [62:2].

It is clear from the latter verse that ‘Wisdom’ is something that is distinct from the Quran, and both are to be taught by the Prophet, Allah bless him and give peace. This wisdom is what is known to the jurists as an ‘un-recited revelation’ [waḥy ghayr matluw] and refers to the Sunnah in contrast to the ‘recited revelation’ [waḥy matluw] of the Quran. 

Authenticity of Hadith

Some modernists claim that the hadith available to us today do not have any authenticity. They deny hadiths and the whole structure of the Sunnah. Their arguments can be divided into two categories:

1)     The Prophet was obliged to propagate the Quran only. Muslims are commanded to obey the Quran only and not the Prophet.

2)     We are obliged to follow the Prophet but all the hadiths available today have reached us through unreliable sources.

The first argument

The first argument is baseless. Firstly, because many verses in the Quran, as we have seen above, indicate that the Prophet’s duty was not only to teach the Quran but to teach the ‘Wisdom’, the ‘un-recited revelation’.

Furthermore, explicit verses state that we are to obey Allah and obey his Prophet.  This does not mean obeying him during his lifetime only, akin to following a political leader, but rather a religious obedience which regards him as an emissary of Allah. The Quran states,

“Obey Allah and his Prophet and those of authority among you” [4:59]

The command to obey the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, in the above verse, is distinct to the obedience of the people of authority, indicating thereby that his obedience is not political but religious.

Secondly, the Quran has guided us in all spheres of life, from the religious to the mundane. However, the exact method of carrying out the commands have been left untouched. This is where the role of the Prophet is of paramount importance. It is through prophetic hadiths that we learn the method of prayer, zakat and Hajj etc. Consequently, to deny the corpus of hadith will entail the inability to carry out the Divine commands, which is absurd as Allah does not command something unable to be performed.

Thirdly, the entire generation of Muslims for fourteen hundred years has believed in the authority of the hadith. The consensus of the Islamic Community [Ummah] has been divinely protected from error. The Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, states, “Allah is not wont to make my Community concur on misguidance” [Hākim].

The Quranic verse “We have made the Quran easy for remembrance; is there any that will remember?”[40:54] cannot be used as evidence for not needing hadith. This is because the content of the Quran can be divided into two categories: a) relating to the personal relationship with Allah e.g. fear and awe of Allah; b) relating to rulings that require legal reasoning. The above verse describes the former and not the latter as the word ‘remembrance’ and the rhetorical question ‘Is there any that will remember?’ indicate.    

The Second Argument

The argument that the prophetic hadiths have not reached us through reliable sources is fallacious because of the following reasons:

1)     The Quran has reached us through the same channels that the hadith have been transmitted. To deny one is to deny the other. The verse “Surely we are its Protectors” [15:9] does not only relate to the Quran but also to the hadith as the jurists have defined the Quran as the ‘words and meanings of the Divine’ [Haq n/d: 6]. ‘Meanings’ here referring to the hadith and Sunnah.

2)     It is logically impossible for the Creator to command something that the creatures cannot perform.

3)     It shows ignorance of the science of hadith studies and literature. The hadith scholars have done “whatever was humanly possible to put to the reliability of every Tradition to a very rigorous test- a far more rigorous test than European historians usually apply to any sources of old history” [Asad 2001: 108].

4)    The preservation of hadiths began right in the Prophetic era and not, as it is claimed, two centuries later. We shall deal with this separately in the following section.    

History of the transmission and preservation of hadiths

Mufti Taqi Usmani [T. Usmani 2003:34] lists three methods that the Companions employed to preserve the hadith:

1)     Memorisation. The Arabs possessed magnificent memories. Some amongst them had memorised not only their own genealogies but also the lineages of their horses. Many others had thousands of verses of poetry retained in their memories.

If it was possible for the Companions to preserve the Quran from memory, to the very minutest spelling, it is equally possible for them to preserve the sayings and actions of he whom they regarded as their Master and speaker of Allah’s words. Particularly, when he had said, “He who intentionally lies about me, will take his place in Hell” [Bukhari] and “May Allah illuminate the countenance of a person who hears my hadith, memorises it, understands it and teaches it as he had heard it” [Bayhaqi, Ahmad, Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah].

Abu Hurayrah, Allah be well pleased with him, has related 5374 hadiths which he had transmitted from memory, of which 486 are in Bukhari. He himself states that he had narrated more hadiths than any other Companion except for Abdullah ibn ‘Amr ibn ‘Āṣ, because he narrated from what he had written in his manuscript whilst I transmitted from memory only [Bukhari 1961, vol.1 :22, Madani 1998:68-69].

2)     Emulation. Another method that the Companions employed to preserve the hadith was to translate what the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, taught into action. Their persons were the living embodiments of the Prophetic example, the paragon of human virtues and possibilities. We find in the corpus of hadiths many Companions for example, teaching the method of ablution and prayer through practical example and saying thereafter, “Such was the ablution/prayer of the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace”.

3)     Writing. The ‘enlightened’ brethren claim that the Prophet forbade the Companions to write hadith as he feared that it would get confused for the Quran. The Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, states, “Do not write anything from me other than the Quran, whoever does so should erase what he has written. Relate my hadiths orally” [S. Usmani 2003:256]. This does not however, contradict writing hadiths when there is no fear of intermixing. This is why we find in Tirmidhī an Anṣārī  who complained to the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, about his inability to memorise hadiths, the Prophet replied, “Seek help with your right hand”[Tirmidhi]. Similarly, Abdullah ibn ‘Amr ibn ‘Āṣ was commanded by the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, to write hadith as he did not speak anything but the truth [Abū Dāwūd]. Abdullah ibn ‘Amr ibn ‘Āṣ had a written manuscript of hadith which he called ‘ṣahīfah ṣādiqah’. Many other companions also had written manuscripts of the hadith which they had heard from the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace. For example, Zayd ibn Thābit had a manuscript concerning hadith about inheritance [S. Usmani 2003: 258]. Ali ibn Abī Ṭālib, Ibn Mas‘ūd, Samurah ibn Jundub, S‘ad ibn ‘Ubādah all had written collection of hadiths [T. Usmani 2003: 40-41].    


We have shown the centrality that the hadith and Sunnah occupy in Islam. The tendency to separate the Quran from the Sunnah should be strenuously combated. We have rebutted the claims that hadiths are unreliable and do not form part of Islam. The Muslims look to the Sunnah to regulate their lives in all its aspects as the Prophet was the paradigm and paragon of human possibility.  

The significance of the Sunnah as a paradigm may be appreciated if one understands the significance of the Prophet himself and the place he occupies in Islam. This is because Sunnah is the distillation of the ‘meaning’ of the Prophet. The Quran commands the Prophet to proclaim that he is a man like other men except that he has received revelation [Surah 18: 110]. It is this fact that the Prophet was chosen to be the agency through whom Allah guided humankind that makes him central in the Muslim consciousness. And it is the Sunnah that is identified fully with what is most important for humanity in the sending of the Prophet: an example by which to live life as it was meant to be lived and a criterion to judge between Truth and Falsehood, Good and Evil, Beauty and Ugliness. By following the Sunnah the Muslim is attempting to live as the Perfect Man [insān al-kāmil] lived, the paragon of all human virtues and possibilities, the example proffered by Allah himself to what it means be a fully realised human.

The Sunnah covers all the aspects of a Muslim’s life, providing a pattern by which to act. This ensures that everything one does in the light of the Sunnah, from the formally ritualistic to the mundane, turning everything one does through one’s intention into a sacrament. The Muslim then is never unsure of how to behave for there is the Sunnah as a trusty guide.    

Shazad Khan


Asad, Muhammad, 2001. Islam at the Crossroads. Delhi: Goodword Books.

Bukhari, Muhammad ibn Ismaīl 1961. al-Jam‘i al-Ṣaḥīḥ. Karachi: Qadimi Kutub Khana.

Dihlawi, Abdul Haqq 1368 A. H. Mukhaddama Fī Bayān B’aḍ Muṣtalaḥāt al-Hadīth. Karachi: Qadimi Kutub Khana. 

Haqq, Abu Muhammad Abdul, n/d. al-Nāmī Sharḥ al-Ḥusāmī. Multan: Kutub Khana Majidia.

Lucknowī, Abdul Hayy 1997. Zafar al-Amānī fī Mukhtaṣar al-Jurjānī. Azamgarh: Jamia Islamia.

Madani, Husayn Ahmad 1998. al-Misk al-Dhakī ‘alā al-Jām‘i al-Tirmidhī. Deoband: Darul Ishaat al-ilmiyyah.

Manzūr, Abū Faḍl Muhammad ibn Mukrim 1997. Lisān al-‘Arab. Beirut: Dār al-Ṣādir.

Usmani, Taqi 2003. Dars-e-Tirmidhī. Karachi: Maktaba Darul Uloom.

Usmani, Shabir Ahmad 2003. Fatḥ al-Mulhim bi sharḥ saḥīḥ al-Imām Muslim. Karachi: Makataba Darul Uloom.


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