The Significance of the Sunnah in the Islamic Religion

The Sunnah provides additional guidance not found in the Quran.
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The Islamic Sunnah consists of legal precedents that go beyond the general principles found in the Quran. The Sunnah addresses a wide range of matters pertaining to the life of a believer, from the specific positions of prayer to guidelines for regulating business. Unlike the Quran, however, the Sunnah does not rely on a text that was perfectly revealed and infallibly preserved, which has led to significant differences among various branches of the faith.

1 Sunnah in the Quran

In Arabic, Sunnah means "a way of acting." However, as "The Encyclopaedia of the Quran" explains, the specific applications of this term in the Quran are somewhat different from those that would follow. Sunnah in the Quran refers primarily to two types of behavior connected to unbelievers: God's way of acting in regard to unbelievers and the way people act when they reject the revelation of God. For example, in 32:62 of the Quran, God speaks of his "established way" of punishing the hypocrites who oppose his prophets.

2 The Origin of Sunnah

After Muhammad's passing in 632 C.E., the Muslim community had to resolve issues pertaining to worship and everyday life without the Prophet there in person to provide inspired guidance. Some Muslims asserted that the proper guide for behavior could be found in "living Sunnah," the customs of the residents of Medina, where Muhammad lived and governed during the latter years of his life. Others, though, argued for a more widely accessible resource, the precedents established by reliable accounts of Muhammad's actions and decisions. As Islam spread through the Arab world, the broader approach to Sunnah prevailed, providing Muslims with an authoritative basis for addressing questions pertaining to belief and appropriate behavior, such as proper dress, the right way to pray and the ethics of commerce.

3 Sunnah and Hadith

The reliance on the accounts of Muhammad's life gave rise to the Hadith, which contain reports of the Prophet's sayings and actions. The Hadith provide the basis for the Sunnah's principles and precedents, and the relationship between the two is so close that the terms Hadith and Sunnah are sometimes used interchangeably.The Hadith came to be seen as inspired by God, but this did not finally resolve disputes over the proper sources for guidance. A number of accounts in the Hadith appear to be inauthentic, leading to significant differences among Muslims as to which Hadith should serve as the Sunnah's legitimate foundation.

4 Branches of Islam and the Sunnah

The Sunnah, together with the Quran, provide the divinely inspired foundation of the Shariah, the comprehensive collection of the rules and principles in Islamic law. However, the Sunnah is both a source of unity and division. For example, the Sunnah of Shiite Muslims relies primarily on Hadith connected to their first imam, Ali, and the other sinless, infallible imams descended from him. Sunni Muslims, taking their name from the Sunnah, rely on the Hadith from a broader range of Muhammad's companions but do not share the Shiite position in regard to the imams. In contrast to both Sunni and Shiite Muslims, the Ahl Al Quran movement rejects the authority of all hadith in favor of the Quran alone.

John Green is an attorney who has been writing on legal, business and media matters for more than 20 years. He has also taught law school and business courses in entrepreneurship, business enterprise, tax and ethics. Green received his J.D. from Yale Law School and his Ph.D. in religion from Duke.