Chapter 1 The Qur’anic Usage of the Words “Sunnah” and “Hadith”


In the Qur'an "sunnah" means an example that is set either by what someone does or by what is done to someone. The Qur'an does not use the word in the sense that it has now come to acquire in Islamic parlance. In almost all of its Qur'anic usages the word involves divine punishment and not the practice established by the Prophet for his followers. Thus in 8:38, 15:13, 18:55, and 35:43 we read of "sunnah of people in the past". The context shows that this does not mean what the past nations used to do but what was done to them by God as a punishment. In 17:77 there is a reference to "sunnah of those messengers whom We sent before you (O Muhammad)" but this does not mean the practice of the messengers but the practice of God in punishing those who persecute the messengers. In 17:77, 33:62, 35:43, 48:23 we read of "sunnah of God" and the reference is to God's unchanging practice of punishing the transgressors or disbelievers. In 3:137 the plural sunan is used absolutely: "There have passed before you, sunan. So travel on the earth and see how was the end of those who rejected (the truth)." The meaning is once again "past examples of divine punishment". The plural is again used in 4:26: "God would explain to you and show you sunan of those before you...". This is usually translated in a positive sense by something like: "guide you to the ways of the righteous people before you," where righteous is added in the translation. But in view of other uses of the word it should be understood as the negative examples God made of the past people. At the very least such a negative sense should not be excluded and we should translate simply as: show you by the examples of those before you, where examples can be both good and bad. This would better explain why in this verse and the verses following it there is a mention of God's mercy and forgiveness "to you". The meaning would be: by explaining various matters and showing the examples of the past people God desires that you would not follow those who would make you deviate far from the right way and thus enable you to avoid the punishment that was the lot of the deviants and instead receive his mercy.

The one remaining use of "sunnah" in the Qur'an is 33:38: "There is no reproach for the Prophet in what God ordained for him – sunnah of God concerning those who passed away of old; and the command of God is a destiny assured." Here the "sunnah" is not the conduct or practice of the Prophet but rather the practice of God

Thus the Qur'an never talks of the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad or of any other prophet in the traditional sense of the word. In almost all, if not all the Qur'anic passages where the word sunnah is used it signifies God's way or system of dealing with the disbelievers.

To appreciate fully this Qur'anic usage we need to remember the use of the word "sunnah" in the Arab society at the time of the Qur'anic revelation and before. In that society the word referred to the customs, ancestral traditions, etc. by which the people ordered their affairs. Since there was no developed system of law and its enforcement, there were appeals only to this custom to settle any disputes etc. In response to the Qur'anic message the pagan Arabs often said that they are going to continue to follow the way of their forefathers. The Qur'an is telling the pagan Arabs (and of course to all other people with similar attitude): you say that you have a sunnah from which you do not want to depart. Well, then God also has a sunnah which he does not change and His sunnah is that He punishes severely those who reject his guidance. When in the Qur'an the pagans say that they are going to stay on the path of their forefathers (5:104, 10:78, 31:21, 43:22-23) they do not use the word "sunnah" but still when the Qur'an referred to the sunnah of God in punishing the transgressors its first Arab hearers would have made the connection and received a powerful message.

It is of interest here to mention also the word bid`ah, meaning innovation. For the pagan Arabs it meant creating a way different from the customary way. From a Qur'anic point of view, however, many of the customary ways are bid`ah because they are deviations from the way established by God, the way of the true nature (fitrah) of humankind as manifested by the messengers of God (30:30). One such bid`ah for example is the Christian monasticism (57:27, where the verb bada`a is used to describe the innovation). Because the way of the true fitrah is as old as human beings, this way is shown by all the messengers of God. Therefore a new messenger does not innovate a path different from the one followed and shown by earlier messengers. This is the idea that the Qur'an expresses in 46:9: "Say! I am not bid`an among the messengers" which can be understood in one or both of the following two ways:

    I am not the first human being to have been raised as the messenger of God;

    I am not someone introducing a bid`ah by departing from the way common to all the messengers of God.

Turning to the word hadith, this is used in the Qur'an to mean `an event or its report', `story', or 'a conversation or its subject', 'a statement' (4:42, 78, 87, 140, 7:68, 12:6, 21, 101, 111, 23:44, 34:19, 45:6, 52:59, 56:81, 66:2, 68:44, 77:50, 88:1). It can be used of the Qur'an (18:6, 39: 23 etc), of the conversation of people (33:53), of misleading vain talk (31:6), of the stories of prophets like Abraham or Moses (51:24, 79:15) and of stories of past peoples (23:44, 85:17).

We need now to ask how far the Qur'anic usage of sunnah and hadith correspond to the meaning of the words as they have commonly come to acquire in Islamic tradition.

It is completely false to say, as some Qur`an-only people do, that the Qur'an rejects all hadith except the Qur'an. To the contrary, in 51:24, 79:15, 23:44, 85:17, the Qur'an refers to the revelatory and sacred ahadith of prophets and peoples as they circulated before the Qur'an. This Qur'anic usage is perfectly consistent with the use of the term to refer to a reported statement or action of the Prophet Muhammad, although admittedly the Qur'an does not use the word in specific reference to him.

The same is difficult to say about "sunnah", since the Qur'anic usage of the word is mostly in reference to divine punishment and not in the sense of practices established by the prophets for their followers. Of course the Arabic language allows the word sunnah to be used in this latter sense. But the Qur'an does not contain such a meaning. It is possible that the word entered Islamic parlance from the pre-Islamic terminology duly modified in the light of Islam: sunnah as the customary practice established in the society by some ancestors was changed to sunnah as customary practice established by the Prophet. If so, there would be a distinct possibility that some of the attitudes toward sunnah that went with the pre-Islamic usage of the term, if not also some of the specific practices of that time, might have entered Islam.

In the light of the above considerations should we discard the use of the word sunnah? This is extremely difficult and for that very reason inadvisable. We can continue to use the word but with the awareness that the word is not derived from the Qur'an and consequently might have imported into our tradition some undesirable attitudes and practices.

The fact that the Qur'an does not talk about the sunnah or hadith of the Prophet much less say that it is a source of guidance is used by the Qur`an-only people in support of their views. But more important than the terminology are the ideas that are conveyed. We therefore need to go beyond the usage of the words sunnah and hadith and see whether the Qur'an contains the ideas that are meant to be conveyed by these words. That is, we need to see whether in the Qur'an the mission of the Prophet was to simply deliver the Qur'anic verses or whether his own practice and words also were part and parcel of his message and mission. This is what we now proceed to do in the next couple of chapters.