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Islamic Ideology ( 16 Feb 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Evolution in the Concept of Sunnah during the first four Generations of Muslims in Relation to the Development of the Concept of an Authentic Hadith

By Dr. Adis Duderija,

(University of Melbourne, Islamic Studies)

This writing is a section taken from an article written by this author which will appear in an academic journal “Arab Law Quarterly” at the end of this year. It is to be read in conjunction with another article which traces the chronological development of an authentic hadith also published on this website. He article traces the development of the concept of Sunna during the first the first four generations of Muslims in order to show that it was conceptually distinct from the concept of an authentic hadith as defied by classical hadith sciences ( ulum ul hadith).I did not include the references to make the article shorter and because of copy rights issues.

1. Sunna At Time Of Prophet

At the time of the Prophet then the concept of Sunnah was associated quite naturally with him, and , except from  its ‘ibadat component,  seemed to  have been  understood primarily as a general,  ethico-religious and , in Medina, politico-administrative , concept based upon righteous customary  practice that partially reflected some of the  pre-Qur’anic customs and practices not contrary to Qur’anic worldview. The legislative component of Sunnah, which in no doubt existed, was , in consonance with the nature of the Qur’an as the “most trustworthy mirror of the prophet’s outlook and teaching” ,  also primarily  conceived in religio-moral rather than positivistic terms. These religious and moral teachings, in fact, functioned as a reference point for legal evaluation.

How the concept of Sunnah was understood in the subsequent two generation of Muslims is what we turn our attention to now.

.2. Sunnah   at time of Companions and Successors

Over the period of approximately one decade, the Muslim community had ample opportunity to internalise and absorb the overall spirit, ethos and the character of the Prophet based on the overall Qur’anic worldview. Juynboll refers to this notion of Sunnah as “practice based on the memory of the collective concept of Prophet’s followers on whose basis the community’s cohesion rested.”

During this period of time Prophet’s Companions observed his embodiment of Qur’anic message and how it was applied in society in terms of his behaviour, word and deed. The Prophet’s action-behavioural system was quite naturally described by the Muslim community as Sunnah  and carried a degree of normativeness whose anchoring point was the Qur’an. In this context Bravmann observes the following:

At the time of the election of 'Umar's successor, which led to the appointment of Uthman, the adherence to the practice (sirah or sunnah) of the Prophet had developed into an unalterable, basic principle of Islam.

In cases of the performance of congregational prayers and ritual purification, for example, the Muslim community in Medina internalised and embodied these practices by engaging in their daily performance with the Prophet. Therefore both Companions and the Medinian community became the collective embodiment and perpetuators of these aspects of the Prophet’s Sunnah. In this context Graham astutely observes

Naturally enough, the living Sunnah ( “way”,” practice”) of the charismatic Ummah (and the Medinian community in particular), which was rooted in the Sunnah of the prophet, became the active, practical standard of authoritative faith and practice.

The practical and oral perpetuation of Sunnah must have been very common during the era of the Prophet. It is for  these reasons that Malik (d.179), as we already mentioned, considered that from the very inception of Muslim community in Medina to his time  Sunnah and Qur’an were inseparable  both of which were interpreted and perpetuated against the  ‘amal/practice of the community rather than simply from the texts.

The first link in this ‘amal and oral based Sunnah was the caliphs who acted and expended upon the Prophet’s Sunnah after his death. As the political authority was transferred to them after the Prophet’s demise, the caliphs, based on their impeccable status as witness bearers of the Qur’ano-Sunnahic ideals, became sources of Sunnah themselves. As Hallaq remarks “these caliphs set a model of good behaviour [and did not] necessarily laid down specific rulings.” Indeed, “caliphal authority was not derivative of that of the Prophet but ran parallel to it.” Juynboll maintains that “it is generally accepted fact that the first four caliphs set their own standards [and that] they ruled the community in the spirit of the Prophet, thinking their own solutions to the problems rather than meticulously copying his actions.” This is further substantiated by Souaiaia’s assertion that the classical Islamic law recognised the personal informed opinion of the first four caliphs alongside those of renowned companions, in addition to the Qur’an and Sunnah, to be sources of law. Mathnee goes even further by stating that the early concept of Sunnah was such that it was used in an arbitrary fashion without reference to a particular authority and that it was susceptible to continuous change. He maintains further that the Sunnah could refer to a practice or a tradition or a combination of both and with multiple equivalent authorities. Guraya expresses a similar view by maintaining that in early Islam the concept of Sunnah was not ‘specifically determined’,that it changed over time.” In other words we could talk about several types of Sunan (pl. of Sunnah) at this point in time, that of individuals other then the Prophet (mainly well-known Companions and early caliphs) and the collective conduct of individuals upon which ‘amal –based Sunnah rested. In this context Juynboll asserts:

…the associations of sunnas with persons other than the Prophet are so numerous and varied that that does not permit us to assume that the Prophet ‘s example overshadowed or indeed eclipsed that of others, at least not during the first hundred and fifty years or so after his death.

These different anchoring points and sources of Sunnah at this point in time, however, were considered as one coherent whole rather then being conceptually different in any significant way.

This rather methodologically amorphous, ethico-moral and values –based and adaptable definition of Sunnah/Sunan, conceptually organically linked to the Qur’an, the Practice of the Prophet, his Companions and embodied by the Medinian community remained essentially the same during the time of the first caliphs. For example this concept of Sunna is also evident in its usage when the confrontation between ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib and Muʿāwiya b. Abī Sufyān [q.vv.] at Ṣiffīn (37/657 ) was resolved with an arbitration agreement on the basis of  the kitāb Allāh and al-sunna al-ʿādila al-d̲j̲āmiʿa g̲h̲ayr al-mufarriḳa, (i.e. the Book of God and the just sunna that unites rather than disperses).

Sunnah, as a concept, therefore, was not seen as a codified set of positive laws but rather as either a moral precedent that could be adapted to various contexts /circumstances or was identified with certain practices evident in the Muslim Medinian community. Hallaq also takes the view that, at this time, Sunan “were not legally binding narratives but subjective notions of justice put to various uses and discursive strategies.”

The early Muslim community during the first two to three decades after the Prophet’s death was still a relatively small, self –contained one where the vast majority of the Companions lived. This meant that the prevalent conditions for diffusion of Sunan without reliance on written documentation was relatively easy and quick to achieve, and remained the primary source of transmission of Sunan during the time of the Companions. With the rapid expansion of the Muslim empire towards the end of the first half of the first century Hijrah and the accompanying changes in the socio-political climate made the problem of transmission and dissemination of non-written Sunan more difficult.

Companions, the sources and perpetuators of Prophet’s Sunnah as understood at that time-period, dispersed to various provinces of the ever –expanding Muslim Empire. With the establishment of the Companions in these provinces, people who did not have the opportunity to see the Prophet first-hand or were born after the Prophet’s death, termed Successors (ta’biin), were eager to find out from them what Prophet did, how he behaved and acted. Companions, however, were facing increasingly new problems to which they had no specific Prophetic precedent due to the nature of the Sunnah as it was understood at that time. In such cases Companions used their own judgment and reason in order to arrive at solutions, which were still considered as falling under the general aegis of the Prophetic precedent. Al-Azami also noted this by remarking that “[S]ometimes the norms drawn analogically from the practice or the sayings of the Prophet were also called sunna.” This assertion is also substantiated by the fact that Muslims at that time “regarded as authoritative not only the precepts and practices of the Prophet, but also those of his Companions.”  In this context Hakim maintians that

It is not unusual for companions of the Prophet to be credited with a Sunnah of their own. Thus, Abu Bakr, together with Umar, is credited to have Sunna…In other traditions we find expressions such like ‘sunnat Abi Bakr al-rashidah al-mahdiyah” or “sunnaht Abi Bakr aw ‘Umar aw Uthman aw ‘Ali”. Moreover, the Islamic tradition frequently refers to sunnat ‘Umar.

One example is in the context of ‘Umar’s farewell sermon in which he is reported to have said the following:

Indeed, I established the sunan for you, instituted the ordinances and led you to a clear path . . . unless you deviate with the people right or left (qad sanantu la-kum al-sunan wa-faradtu la-kum al-faraid . . . illa an tamilu bi-al-nas yaminan wa-shamalan).”

That the Companions themselves made a distinction between sunna ( in this instance in form of the medinian ‘amal) and hadith is evident from the following statement : "It has been transmitted that 'Umar ibn al-Khattab said on the minbar, 'Through Allah's help, glory be to Him, I will cause to be severely straightened the circumstance of any man who transmits a hadith contrary to the 'amal of Madinah.'"

The above described  concept of Sunnah seems to have been transmitted to the Successors largely in a similar manner to that which the Companions themselves received it that is via practical means based on the overall spirit of the Prophet’s life legacy. For example in Medina ,a Successor, ibn Musayyib ( d. 90 H ) and his colleagues founded schools of jurisprudence based on  the verdicts of Umar and Uthman  while in Kufa , Nakha’i (d.95), also a Successor,  and his associates, based their opinions  and knowledge of jurisprudence ( tafaqquh) on legal opinions   ( fatwas) of  an esteemed Companion Ibn Mas’ud(d.94 )  and  the fourth caliph Ali (d. 40) largely  independent of any written-based documentation of Prophetic actions  or words. The nature of this Sunnah as espoused by these authorities was still very much in tune with that of the Prophet’s, as Nakhai, an Iraqi law specialist,

 did no more than give opinions on questions of ritual and perhaps kindred problems of directly religious importance, cases of conscience concerning alms tax, marriage, divorce and the like, but not on technical points of law. The same is true of Ibrahim’s contemporaries in Medina.”

The legal character of Sunnah manifesting itself in a body of literature on positive law was thus still not evident at this point in time. This led Schacht to conclude that, what we could term, a distinctively new Qur’ano-Sunnahic law anchored in the Prophetic dicta (Hadith-corpus based or not) was non-existent during the most of the first century of Hijrah. This assertion is echoed by Hallaq who maintains that “evidence from the early sources appears to support the view that the legal authority during the better part of the first Islamic century was in no way exclusively Prophetic.”

The jurisprudentic activity of Successors led to the formation of regional centres of Sunnah based on their understanding of Sunnah that was transmitted to them via the Companions. Thus, the regional Sunnah was ultimately deriving its legitimacy and authority from the Companions rather than from the Prophet. This geographically-based Sunnah was then diffused throughout the region itself.  It, in turn, served as a foundation on which the practice of the people was based or was normatively assessed against.

As such the Sunnah –based practices of Muslim community as a whole within a particular region also became embodiments of Sunnah as well as sources and perpetuators of Sunnah for subsequent generations

The use of the practice of Muslims in /believers in Medina as additional sources of Sunnah, argues Dutton, features prominently in Maliki’s Muwatta and is described as ‘amal. This ‘amal was based upon the Qur’an, Sunnah dating from time of the Prophet and an element of ra’y of later authorities which merged into it. Although what we just said pertains primarily to Medina similar processes in other major regional schools such as Kufa, Basra, Syria and Egypt were taking place.

For example notion of practice as indicator of Sunnah is also evident in Abu Yusuf’s writings who lived in Kufa. The practice- based Sunnah derives, in his view, from “those norms which were recognised as such by the Muslims in general, were accepted by the fuqaha and which had come down through reliable and learned people ( al-sunnah ‘an rasul Allah ‘an al-salaf min ashabih wa min qawm fuqaha). Similarly, early Ibadism filtered hadith on the basis of al-haqq al-ma’ruf fi kitab Allah wa sunnat nabiyhi  wa athar al-salihin  i.e. al-a’imma wa’l-ulama. Although in the context of Iraq the notion of Medinian ‘amal based Sunnah did not exist their concept of Sunnah was ultimately derived from the living practice of Companions who migrated from Medina to Iraq and was not expressed in hadith.

Caliph Abd Al Malik (r.65-86) also made a methodological distinction between Sunnah and hadith when advising one of his sons to burn hadith al maghazi and study the Qur’an and heed the Sunnah instead.

In Motzki’s investigation of the development of early Islamic jurisprudence in Makkah it is argued that for a Successor Ata ibn Rabah’s (d.115 A.H.)  , one of the disciples of Ibn Abbas (d.67 A.H.), the founder of the Mekkan law school:

 “die Idee vom Vorbildcharacter der sunna des Propheten und ihrer moeglichen  Funktion als Rechtsquelle in Ergaenzung zum Koran in sein Denken noch nicht Eingang gefunden hatte oder –falls das schon der Fall war-Ata noch nicht die Notwendingkeit verspuerte ,dies im Einzenlen zu belegen. Diese Annahme wird auch durch Atas Gebrauch des Wortes sunna gedeckt, das bei ihm den Brauch im Sinne der anerkannten gesellschaftlichen Praxis in Mekka bezeichnet.”

Similarly, in Syria the notion of Sunnah as conceptualised by their region’s main jurist, Awza’i, was understood in terms of an uninterrupted practice of Muslims beginning with the Prophet and maintained by the early caliphs and later scholars…without adducing of hadith.

Therefore, “each locale, from Syria to Iraq to the Hejaz, established its own legal practices on the basis of what was regarded as the sunna of the forefathers, be they Companions or the Prophet.” Summarizing the nature and the scope and Sunnah’s method of transmission at this point in time, Wheeler asserts,

The authority of the sunnah as prophetic practice, as conceived by the local second century authorities, was guaranteed by a continuous tradition of practice through generations going back to the prophet. It was defined as an interpretation having an authority that was conveyed by the link it represented with the prophetic past. Being regarded as either common practice or logically consistent practice, the content of Sunnah was considered prophetic on account of its receipt from these previous generations or derivation on the basis of these generations’ practice.

  In terms of its epistemological value, this practice -based Sunnah was, like the Qur’an and unlike a majority of hadith, a mutawatir-based source of knowledge.

Since Sunnah, in its narrowest edified sense, could only literally be applied to those practices and behaviours that surfaced and were established during the Prophet’s lifetime, the scope of that body of Sunnah was rather limited and was increasingly in need of interpretation and extrapolation. This interpretative need of Sunnah, based on the same characteristic of the  Qur’anic text itself , could  be satisfied by identifying it  with  certain more abstractprinciples said to be in accordance with the spirit of the Qur’an and Sunnah, and which could be deemed relevant to a new case. As well, its scope could be expanded by legitimising the use of personal judgement based on reason (ra’y).

The former is termed applied reason or analogy (qiyas) and the later pure reason (ra’y /ijtihad). Decisions based on these thought processes would also become parts of Sunnah. Indeed, in this context Guraya in his close analysis of the concept of Sunnah in early Islam maintains that speculative free thought was considered’ as genuine, valid and authoritative constituent of Sunnah. This is exactly what happened when the first four caliphs introduced certain penalties, for example, in cases of alcohol prohibition and punishment that had neither a direct precedent in the Qur’an or in the Sunnah. These practices were, however, later considered as Sunnah for two reasons. Firstly, they were consistent with the concept of the spirit of Sunnah because of Sunnah’s conceptualisation in abstract value oriented terms. Secondly, and as a direct result of this understanding of Sunnah, the caliphs themselves as well as other Companions and fuqaha, were considered sources as well as perpetuators of Sunnah.  In this context Abbott asserts that her investigation of early Arabic literary papyri has led her to conclude that  [The ] term sunnah[which] frequently alternates with the plural sunan , is not limited to the example  or conduct of Muhammad but applies also to at least the caliphs Abu Bakr and ‘Umar I and to a number of outstanding men who held high office under their three heads of state.

Indeed, the basis of Caliphal Law throughout the Umayyad period (up to 132 A.H. / 750 C.E.) was based on the Qur’an, Sunnah in a sense of general, good practice and ra’y, so that the Umayyad caliphs were “free to make and unmake Sunnah as they wished.” Additionally, and importantly, “the concept of Sunnah was not in itself an obstacle to legal innovation.”

Ra’y as well as qiyas were essentially seen as legitimate, pragmatical tools in extrapolating law and had a positive connotation to them. Ansari considers that  the personal judgements of jurists “which were considerably  influenced by subjective considerations … [and] accompanied by a broad understanding of the spirit and goals of Islam , played a fairly important part in the early Islamic legal thinking.” Established juristic authorities such as Abdallah b. Abbas (d.68), Hasan al-Basri (d.110 A.H) and S.ibn Musayib (d. 90 A.H.) were representatives of this  method. This was only possible if both Qur’an and Sunnah were conceptualised in such temrs. Moreover, Schacht maintains that ra’y has been an integral part of regional Sunnah and an essential element of Islamic thought from its very inception. Hallaq, furthermore, asserts that the meaning of ra’y during the entire first century of Hijrah and the portion of the next “was a major sources of legal reasoning and judicial rulings” and furthermore was “very close to and, in fact, couldn’t be separated from Sunnah.” Similarly, Guraya in his examination of Malik’s concept of sunna identifies sound reason and independent considered opinion(ra’y) as being contituative of sunna.

 This ra’y, in words of Rahman, produced an immense wealth of legal, religious and moral ideas during the first century and a half approximately...  [and] the product of this activity became rather chaotic i.e. the Sunnah of different regions –Hejaz, Iraq, Egypt-became divergent on almost every issue of detail.” Not only were there differences in doctrines between various regions but also within them.

Juynboll summarises the methods of Sunnahic development during the first century of Hijrah by saying that two distinct manners were evident: that is by resorting to individual judgement (common sense or ra’y) and by the quest for, and transmission of, a precedent. In a similar tone Hallaq asserts that “as late as 90s A.H. and some decades after qadis (jurists) relied on three sources of authority in framing their rulings: Qur’an, Sunan (including caliphal law) and discretionary opinion (ra’y).” Again, it is important to note that   these sources of Sunnah were entirely independent of any form of written documentation ( i.e.Hadith).

 Our discussion on the evolution of the concept of Sunnah leads us now to the next generation of Muslims, that of Successors’ Successors.

3. Sunnah   at time of Successors’ Successors

With the end of the first and beginning of the second century significant changes to   the concept of Sunnah in the minds of the third generation of Muslims started to develop in terms of its source, mode of transmission, methodological and epistemological parameters (that is, its nature, sources and scope). In this context Juynboll asserts that:

the approximate date of origin of the narrowing down of the concept of Sunnah, formerly comprising the Sunnah, or exemplary behaviour, of the Prophet as well as his most devoted followers, to the exemplary behaviour of Prophet only … [occurred] towards the end of the 1st century of the Hijrah and was conceived at the time of caliph Umar ibn Abd ul-Aziz (99-101).

Hallaq dates this shift somewhat earlier by saying that the isolation of Prophetic Sunnah from other Sunan began to emerge by the late 60s A.H.

The reasons for this process began in the second half of the first century.  The continued territorial expansion of Muslims meant that ever more complex legal and governing processes and institutions had to be put in place within the enlarging boundaries of the area under the Muslim rule. The notion of the administrative and social practices being based on the Qur’an and Sunnah were still operative and engrained in the minds of those Muslims who conquered new lands.

A general perception that the expanding Muslim empire would become organically detached from the Qur’anic and Sunnahic teachings was becoming wide spread.  The realisation of this had already prompted some Muslims to collect and gather a bound (mushaf), official version of the Qur’an, a task that was largely achieved during the reign of the third caliph Uthman (d.35 A.H.). Additionally, a change in political fortunes and the subsequent rise of the Abbasid dynasty (132 A.H.), who used the concept of custodians of the Prophet’s Sunnah through his uncle’s cousin Abbas to justify and legitimise their political power, created an ever greater impetus for a more systematic collection of, and searching for, Sunnah in any form. This, in turn, gave rise to a talab al-ilm phenomenon which gradually started to transform behaviour-practice based regional Sunnah into written-based “Sunnah.” Another factor that started to give shape to the later concepts of an “authentic Hadith” was the partisan tensions that emerged within the nascent Muslim community. These brought serious schisms based on conflicting claims to the successorship to Prophet’s political authority as well as certain theological controversies prevalent at the time.

These two divergent, powerful trends resulted firstly in practice-based Sunnah being increasingly clad in the mantle of written-based  predominantly  purely Prophetic Sunnah, and secondly in the development of more stringent mechanisms in establishing the authenticity of written –based Sunnah, especially in terms of the mode of its transmission, i.e. ulum-ul-isnad. The custom of reliance on regionally practice- based Sunnah was increasingly becoming challenged by a growing corpus of written-based Sunnah as the by-product of talab al-ilm. The objectives of this search for knowledge /’ilm, were such as to collect as much information about the Prophet as possible in all spheres of his life. No qualitative distinction between the Prophet’s role as a Messenger, judge, ethico-moral reformer, family man or statesman was made, and no careful  consideration was given to the fact that this could conceptually change  the nature and the scope of the concept of Qur’an and Sunnah and their interrelationship that existed during the first three generations.

 The “epistemological promise”, to use Prof. El-Fadl’s phrase, of having access to the actual words of the Prophet himself in a documented form   was much more attractive and “logical” than the regional concept of Sunnah. One could argue that it was considered superior to it for several reasons by many of those who accepted its epistemologico-methodological premises. Firstly, the oral and then written in nature of proliferating   “Sunnah” was more tangible than one based on a vague behaviourally practical or  abstract value- or objective-based  concept . Secondly, written-based Sunnah was more voluminous as it was collected across all regions of the Muslim empire rather than being limited to just one. Thirdly, it was more specific and dealt with a broader subject matter than a practice-based Sunnah, which was often based on the spirit of Qur’an and Sunnah and was more difficult to verify. Fourthly, most of the reports were claimed to be going back to the Prophet, while the immediate source of practice-based Sunnah were the Successors and the practice of the community at the time. Fifthly, the practice of the regional community as a source of Sunnah was sometimes problematic because not all community practices were Sunnah-based so that scepticism about all of the community practices started to slowly creep in. Lastly, rather than relying on the general practice of the entire community, many of whom were ignorant of the complexities pertaining to the value and preservation of  this newly formed concept of written-dependent Sunnah , one was presented with a chain of several transmitters, many of whom were held in high esteem and were said to have had an unbroken “link” to the Prophet himself and, as such, qualified as Sunnah’s custodians.  

Despite this paradigm shift in the way Sunnah was becoming to be viewed the broader view of Sunnah still existed throughout the second century. When we examine the period of founders of the personal schools of thought such as Malik (d.179), Auza’I (d.157), Abu Hanifa (d.150) and his disciples Abu Yusuf (d.182) and Shaibani (d.189) we notice that   a qualitative, conceptual distinction between Hadith and Sunnah was still being made.” In Abu Hanifa’s letter to Uthman al-Batti (d.143) the usage of the word Sunnah only makes sense as a concept referring to “normative way of the early community as a whole” (rather then that of the Prophet himself only in the form of hadith).  According to Abd al-Rahman (d.198) who, when talking about three well-established authorities (fuqaha) of Muslim community at that time namely, Al-Thawri (d.161), Al-Auza’I (d.157) and Malik ibn Anas (d.179) characterises the second as imam fi-l-Sunnah wa –laysa bi-imam fi-l-Hadith (recognised authority on questions pertaining to Sunnah but not Hadith) in contradistinction to the first who was authority on Hadith but not on Sunnah and the third as authority on both Sunnah and Hadith (imam fihima jami’an). Abu Yusuf, a disciple of Abu Hanifa was also known as a sahib Hadith wa  sahib Sunnah (“custodian or disposer “lit. owner/proprietor of Hadith and Sunnah). Ahmed Hasan in his The Early Development in Islamic Jurisprudence” notes a similar observation when he says:

it is not necessary that Sunnah be always deduced and known from a Hadith. Early texts on law show that the term Sunnah was used in a sense of the established practice of the Muslims claiming to have come down from the time of the Prophet. That is why Sunnah sometimes contradicts Hadith and sometimes Hadith documents it.

Therefore, existence of Hadith did not mean an a priori dispensing with the earlier concept of Sunnah. Moreover, as we shall subsequently argue, we can infer from Hasan’s above cited statement, that the practice-based Sunnah was used as a criterion for distilling Sunnah congruent from Sunnah non-congruent Hadith. 

In the context of the definition of Sunnah during this time of personal schools of thought we need to remember that there now existed two significant and accepted modes of its transmission, namely practical and Hadith –based. These two modes of transmission of Sunnah were based on two different epistemologico-methodological foundations. The reasons for this were the existing and acknowledged fabrications and contradictory elements becoming evident during the process of formulation of written –based Sunnah, and the possible contamination of practice-based Sunnah with the general practice of community. Therefore “the concern of all ancient [i.e. personal] schools of thought was thus to know what represented the genuine, normative Sunnah of the Prophet and his Companions.”  Both, according to this view, however, could embody Sunnah. 

The Iraqis referred to the Sunnah which functioned as a “Sunnah filter” as al-Sunnah al-mahfula  al-ma’rufa, the well-established Sunnah, and it was this Sunnah that was accepted as normative by the consensus of the majority of ‘ulama  referred to as ijma’.” Malik ibn Anas referred to it as Sunnah ‘indana or at times ‘amal and it acted as the final arbiter and ultimate proof of the Prophetic practice. Some parts of this ‘amal was considered to be sunna whilst others were not. Guraya who investigated Malik’s usage of the concept of Sunnah in his Muwatta has determined the actual constituents of sunna according to Malik as follows:

i.) The religious and ethical principles introduced by the Prophet which, in due course of time, had acquired the status of recognised Islamic religious norms and the accepted standard of conduct [al-qawa’id al-kulliyah]

ii.) Sound reason and independent considered opinion (ra’y) and

iii.) Legal and moral reasoning.

Dutton defines this Sunnah as “a generally agreed core of experience which constituted the community’s knowledge of what it meant to live as a Muslim.” ‘Abd ar-rahman ibn Mahdi (d.198) is also reported , to have not only made a distinction between sunnah and hadith but was an advocate of superiority of  Sunna based on the ‘amal of Medina  over that of hadith based Sunnah asserting that “ A preceding Sunah from the Sunah of the people of Madinah is better than hadith.” Similarly, the Hanafi judge Isa b. Aban ( d.221 A.H) argued that the early Muslim community had rejected ahad hadith which contradicted the Qur’an or established Sunnah and used reason as the ultimate arbiter for judding the veracity of a report and not the isnad.

The regional Sunnah we described above was, according to Rahman, constantly re-defined and re-crystallised based as it was on two methodological tools:  ijtihad-qiyas  (personal opinion thought to be in accordance with the broad, general concept of regional Sunnah termed as-Sunnah al’ma’rufa) and ijma’  whose ultimate anchoring point was the Prophet.  The prevalence of this fundamentally same attitude to Sunnah at this time period is demonstrated by the fact that the bulk of al-Shaibani’s (d.189) last work titled Siyar al-Kabir consists of his own ijtihad. This was based on his scrutiny of works of earlier generations rather than any literal adherence to Hadith.

As far as the use of ra’y based on aql during the second century A.H. is concerned, a similar narrowing down of its legitimacy, scope and connotation was starting to take place, but this process, just like in the case of Sunnah, was incomplete. Reinhart argues that, throughout the Abbasid era, which includes the period under question, the Islamic worldview:

was complemented by religious ideology arguing that all human kind share[ed] a kind of moral common sense, the ‘aql, which has always enabled humans to know the good from detestable. In this process of trying to account for this universal knowledge, scholars sought to locate acts ‘ values in the act itself and the valuation of it in the ‘aql…Muslim Revelation, consequently, was understood as a supplementary form of knowledge, one that confirmed ‘aql…

As we previously mentioned, for example, numerous fuqaha, who died during the second and the third decade of the second century relied heavily on exercising personal opinions based on reason/’aql rather than being involved in Hadith transmission. This trend was evident also among many second or even third century authorities who belonged to the ahl-Sunnah (or were given the title of sahib Sunna) but who were not necessarily associated with proficiency and accuracy of hadith transmission.

At the time of Ibn-Al Muqaffa (d.140) the positive connotations of ra’y were still in operation although they started to develop a negative one too. As the Hadith body of literature was gradually expanding, views not based on these now entirely   textual sources of Sunnah increasingly started to denote “arbitrary opinion” in the minds of those engaged in the process of written documentation of Sunnah. This mixed trend of good and bad ra’y was still evident at the time of Abu Yusuf (d. 182) and Shaibani (d.189). However, since Sunnah was increasingly associated with literal adherence to proliferating Hadith, which were thematically diverse and quite comprehensive, in contrast to being interpreted against the background of ‘amal -based Sunnah or Sunnah al’ma’rufa, conceptually Sunnah’s  nature was becoming more edified and its scope was ever more narrowingly defined.

The growing insistence on a literal following (bi-la kaifa) of “authentic Hadith”, as the only legitimate sources and perpetuators of Sunnah, its superiority as a tool of in Qur’anic tafsir (exegesis) at the cost of non-written based Sunnah, and reason based opinion (ra’y) began to considerably narrow down the epistemologico-methodological playfield of both Qur’an and Sunnah and therefore the nature and the scope of the concept of Shari’ah.This methodological concept of bi-la kaifa (literally- “without asking how”) was based on the premise that whatever is written in the Qur’an as well as in “authentic Hadith”, is not allowed to be contextualised, interpreted in a metaphorical sense or based on certain non-textual epistemological and methodological tools such as notion of ethical objectivism, the use of reason or concept of the  spirit and rationale (qasd) of Qur’an and Sunnah which were, as we saw earlier, the foundation of   Qur’anic and Sunnahic teachings as characterised by the Prophet’s embodiment of the Qur’anic message put into practice and perpetuated by the first three generations of Muslims.

A significant impetus to this view of the epistemologico-methodological superiority of Hadith-based Sunnah to that of  al-Sunnah al-ma’rufa was provided by Shafi’i who belonged to the fourth generation of Muslims.

4. Sunnah at time of Shafi’i and beyond

In the previous part of our discussion we alluded generally to the forces which were contributing towards the growth of the written recordings of (reportedly) Prophet’s actions and words and the absorption of non-written-based Sunnah into them. We also saw that a broader and narrower version of Sunnah were co-existent with an increased tendency for “Hadithification” of regional Sunnah. We shall refer to these factors as mechanisms of traditionalisation. Calder describes this process as a transition from a discursive tradition to a hermeneutic tradition (purporting to derive the law exegetically from the Prophetic sources). Ansari, similarly, talks in terms of the shift towards “an objectively justifiable juristic theory” at the time of Shafi’i. Therefore, those religious authorities that fully embraced and adhered to this narrower epistemologico- methodologal definition of Sunnah (Sunnah equals “authentic Hadith”) are conventionally referred to as traditionalists (ahl-Hadith) while others who remained faithful to the broader definition of Sunnah, which included an element of ra’y, were given the title of rationalists (ahl-ra’y).

The increasing epistemologico-methodological constraints on Sunnah emerged as a by-product of this traditionalisation towards the end and the beginning of the second century with the process of systematic collection and criticism of Hadith. These efforts bore fruit in form of the collection of large quantities of purely written-based “Sunnah” that were claimed to have originated from the very mouth of the Prophet. This “Sunnah”, although originally oral in nature was in due course completely written –based and came from every corner of the Muslim empire. Its authenticity was guaranteed by an increasingly “healthier” isnads as developed by muhaddithun.  The champion of this definition of “Sunnah” was a famous jurist Shafi ‘(d.204).  Shafi’i’s concept of Sunnah was:

 Established by traditions going back to the Prophet, not by practice or consensus. [Apart] from a few traces of the idea of al-Sunnah al-ma’rufa in his earlier writings, Shafi’i recognises the ‘Sunnah of the Prophet’ only in so far as it is expressed in traditions going back to him.  This is the idea of Sunnah we find in the classical theory of Mohammadan laws, and Shafi’I must be considered as its originator there…Shafi’i restricts the meaning of Sunnah so much to the contents of traditions from the prophet, that he is inclined to identify both terms more or less completely.

Thus, it was with Shafi’i, a member of the fourth generation of Muslims, that the methodologico-epistemological beginnings of the coalescing of Sunnah with Hadith came into being for the first time. Up to this point in time prevalent ethico-religious character of Sunnah being interpreted, crystallising and re-interpreted by the fuqaha in the light of ‘amal was becoming ever more legalistic and written in nature. The fuqaha of the regional and personal schools of law (as we briefly outlined and shall deal with in more detail in the next part of the study on Hadith dependent Sunnah) developed their own hermeneutic of Sunnahic definition and interpretation based on their broader hermeneutic orientation which, in the eyes of ahl-Hadith, suffered from numerous defects. As such, Shafi’i often accused these fuqaha, such as Abu Yusuf and Malik, of ignoring or interpreting away the Hadith in favour of their own school’s doctrine or that of their own ra’y.

A faqih who belonged to a personal school of law was increasingly presented with a dilemma either of following the school’s doctrine of Sunnahic hermeneutic or that of Shafi’i. A dilemma was made much more difficult if the faqih had to judge a case that did not have a direct precedent in his school’s doctrine but was found in an isolated Hadith going back to the Prophet pertaining to the matter at hand, or if these two legal tools were contradictory.

Rather than opting for acceptance of a “raw” Hadith unknown to previous authorities belonging to same school, the majority of fuqaha belonging to a particular school of thought, especially those of lower status, were faithful and obedient (muqallid) to  their school’s hermeneutic. In discussing this Brown astutely observes that, with the exception of Hanbalism, the theoretical  triumph of the Shafi’i’ s concept of Sunnah   affected the personal schools of law only “peripherally”. The allegiance to the school’s doctrine of legal theory, he further maintains, was based on consensus as the ultimate criterion in its decision-making processes and not on the Hadith. For example Abu Yusuf, Shafi’i’s older contemporary, is quoted as having said:

So make the Qur’an and well-known Sunnah (al-Sunnah al-ma’rufa) your imam and guide. Follow and judge on that basis whatever maters come to you that have not been clarified for you in the Qur’an and Sunnah,  adding:

So beware of irregular (shadhdh) Hadith and go by those Hadith, which are accepted by the community and recognised by, the fuqaha [as valid] and which are in accordance with Qur’an and Sunnah. Judge matters on that basis.”

Thus this “sunnaic-concensual practice”, to use Hallaq’s terminology that was considered binding was seen as “determinative of hadith.”

As Brown writes these personal schools of thought (madhahib) “had given assent in theory to the importance of Hadith whilst resisting its thorough application” creating a tension between Shafi’i’s definition of Sunnah and “the actual doctrine of the madhhab.” The consolidating Ahl-Hadith movement, however, increasingly questioned these practices as being un-Sunnahic, opening the doors wide-open for the concept of ihya al-Sunnah, revivification of and return to Prophetic Sunnah, by means of a literal adherence to “authentic Hadith” without any intermediaries.

Shafi’i’s methodological innovation did not only pertain to Sunnah but also to the entire evolving legal theory. To him is attributed the title of the first scholar to develop a systematic model of law derivation and in many ways he was considered a father of Islamic jurisprudence.

The efforts of Shafi’i to systematise and develop a more coherent model of legal theory by making Hadith the only vehicle of perpetuation and sole repository of Sunnah, supported by ahl-Hadith, resulted in the further consolidation of existing personal schools of law such as Maliki, Hanafi and later on development of Shafi’I and ahl-Hadith madhhabs.

Shafi’i’s hierarchical legal theory set up for purposes of defining the epistemological boundaries and methodological procedures for derivation of positive law was, apart from Qur’an and Hadith-based Sunnah, founded on ijma’ and on qiyas. The increasingly hierarchical structure of this entirely textual hermeneutic (the Qur’an and Hadith) meant, however, that non-textual sources (practice-based Sunnah/well-known Sunnah, abstract ethico-moral principles, ijma' and analogy) were largely displaced and constrained by them. In relation to this phenomenon Wheeler asserts,

By defining the revelation as a text that requires interpretation as epitomized by prophetic practice contained in the textual corpus of the Sunnah, the theories associated with Shafi’I shifted the guarantee of the local authorities’ opinions away from the local definitions of traditional practice and toward a notion of authority based on the transmission and interpretation of texts.

Writing about this epistemologico-methodological shift, Rahman comments that while in earlier times of the Companions the use of ijtihad slowly crystallised in consensus, giving rise to as- Sunnah al-ma’rufa (well-known Sunnah), only to be again abolished and re-formulated in the light of new circumstances, the epistemological value of ijtihad was reversed in the post –Shafi’i period so that ijtihad was significantly constrained by the ijma’ principle.  All this contributed to “the conviction  becom[ing] absolute that law is justified only if it can be related hermeneutically to Prophetic exampla , and not if it is presented discursively as emanating from an ongoing juristic tradition. This, of course, is directly related to the fact that the epistemologico-methodologically broader concept of Sunnah prevailed and was considered superior to Hadith during the formative period of Islamic thought.

The coalescing of concepts of Sunnah with “authentic Hadith” in theory was, to a large extent, clearly evident but not fully complete at time of Shafi’i. The person who is to be accredited with this is one of the main proponents of ahl-Hadith Sunnahic hermeneutic, Ahmed ibn Hanbal (d. 241A.H.). His approach to the concept of Sunnah is clearly demonstrated in his treatise Tabagatul-Hanaabilah in which he states:

“And the Sunnah with us are the aathaar (narrations) of the Prophet”   (wa –s-Sunnatu ‘indana atharu resulillah). Moreover, in terms of   epistemologico-methodological value and interpretational tool of Hadith, Hanbal maintains that: “the Sunnah (i.e. Athar/Hadith) explains and clarifies the Qur’an (wa s-sunnetu  tufassiru –l –qur’aan)…   there is no analogical reasoning in the Sunnah and the examples are not to be made for it”(wa laisa fi -s-sunneti qiyyas, wa la tudhrebu laha –al- amthal)

Nor is it [Sunnah] grasped and comprehended by the intellects or the desires (wa la tudreke bi-l-‘uquli wa la-l ahwa’).” Thus, Sunnah was epistemologically and methodologically self-identified with Hadith/Athar and was considered as supreme commentary upon the already earlier discussed deutungsbeduerfigkeit of the Qur’an.

Since the ahl-Hadith movement, unlike other schools of thought, considered both theological and jurisprudentic sciences based on both Qur’anic and Sunnahic interpretation completely dependable on literal, Hadith-based Sunnah devoid of imput of reason, Hourani maintains that the inherently Qur’anic principles of ethical objectivism and partial rationalism were transformed into ethical volunterism (ethical concepts understood only in terms of God’s will ) and traditionalism (humans can never know what is morally right by independent  reason , but only by revelation and derived sources), thereby changing the  epistemologico-methodological character of  both Qur’an and Sunnah In this context Reinhart asserts that “[At] this point in time Islam itself became the standard and the congruence of reason and religion, which once served to justify religion, now, at best, justified reason.” Furthermore, the overriding principles of textual hermeneutic also meant “Revelation must categorically alter morality and epistemology…” and by inference “[B] efore or without Revelation there can be no moral knowledge.”


At the beginning of the article two questions that guided its analyses  were asked , namely whether the traditional definition of Sunnah that took root  and established itself during  the post-formative or classical period of Islamic thought reflect the way this term was understood during the pre-classical period. The answer, based on our above analyses is a clear no. We saw that over the period of some 250 years Sunnah was semantico-contextually and epistemologico-methodologically fluid. Secondly, the article attempted to explain the mechanisms were responsible for its conflation with an authentic hadith as defined by the classical ulum al hadith sciences and when did they become apparent. Form the above chronological analyses of the concept of Sunnah we can conclude the following.  At the time of the prophet and the first three to four generations of Muslims Qur’an and Sunnah, in terms of their nature and scope, were conceptually  seen as one organic whole. In addition to the ‘ibadah dimension of Sunnah  both of these sources of Islamic thought were primarily seen in ethico-religious and objective or values-based concepts and were reason inclusive. All these aspects of Sunnah could be formulated, preserved and transmitted orally. The concept of Sunnah was conceptually differentiated from that of hadith may it be in a form of Sunnah al- ma’rufa or that of Sunnah madiya.With the process of what we have described as  traditionalisation this concept of the nature and the scope of the concept of Sunnah ( and that of the Qur’an ) underwent important conceptual changes. Severance of the symbiotic link between Qur’an and Sunnah occurred and over time, its hermeneutical dependence on hadith-based literature was largely engendered thus changing conceptually the its nature and scope as it was understood during the first three generations of Muslims. Secondly the nature and the scope of the concept of Sunnah was conceptually distorted and conflated with the concept of “an post-Shafi’i “authentic hadith” which is how the contemporary Islamic majority mainstream thought continues to conceptualise it to this day.

Dr. Adis Duderija is a research associate at the University of Melbourne, Islamic Studies. He recently published a book: Constructing a Religiously Ideal "Believer" and "Woman" in Islam: Neo-traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims' Methods of Interpretation (Palgrave Series in Islamic Theology, Law, and History.