Difference Between Hadith and Sunnah 

  Amin Ahsan Islahi

    Hadith and Sunnah are generally taken as synonymous terms. This is not a correct impression. The words Hadith and Sunnah have entirely different connotations, and each one holds a different status in the Shari`ah. If we assign the same meaning to both the terms, it would create a lot of complications. For a proper understanding of the science of Hadith, therefore, it is necessary to know precisely the difference between Hadith and Sunnah 


    Hadith implies the narration of a saying, or of an act, or of an approval (Taswib) of the Prophet (sws), irrespective of whether the matter is authenticated or still disputed. The Muhaddithin (the scholars of Hadith) use the word Taqrir to express Taswib. It implies that while doing something in the presence of the Prophet (sws), a Muslim acted in a particular manner and the Prophet (sws) observed it and did not disapprove it. In this way, that person received the tacit approval of the Prophet (sws) regarding that particular action.  
    The Muhaddithin employ the term, Khabar for Hadith. A Khabar bears the possibility of being either right or wrong. In other words, the Muhaddithin believe that a Khabar may be authentic or it may be false. On this account, the Ahadith (plural of Hadith) are also termed as Zanni (presumptive or undefined). This means that a Hadith could be anything ranging from Sahih to Hasan, Da`if, Mawdu`, or Maqlub1  
    Therefore each one of these categories should be treated on its own merits.  

Classification of Hadith or Khabar   
    The Muhaddithin divide Hadith or Khabar into two main classes:  
    1. Khabar-i-Tawatur (multiple evidence Hadith 
    2. Khabar-i-Wahid (single evidence Hadith 



    Khatib Baghdadi, the author of "al-Kifayah fi`ilm al-Riwayah"2 defines Khabar-i-Tawatur as follows:  

    It is that Khabar which is quoted by such a large number of persons that in normal circumstances it is impossible that on a manifest subject so many people would, at one and the same time, agree on a false matter, when there is no evidence of any pressure on them too.  

    To my knowledge, no Hadith exists which satisfies the definition of Khabar-i-Tawatur. Sometimes a Hadith is assigned the status of a Khabar-i-Mashhur3. However, on investigation, it is discovered that during a span of three periods only one or two narrators could be established, whereas their number was found to increase during the period of the third or fourth period. Likewise, in my opinion, such Ahadith as have been declared as Khabar-i-Mutawatir stand in need of investigation. If they come up to the prescribed standard, only then should they be accepted as Mutawatir. Without this investigation, it would not be correct to accept anything as Mutawatir. It must, however, be remembered that so far as the Sunnah is concerned, it does hold the status of Tawatur (continuity), as we shall explain further. And this Tawatur is not verbal, but practical.  


    Khabar-i-Wahid is that Khabar which is not as authentic as Khabar-i-Tawatur. Even though the narrators in this case too be more than one, their number is not so large that one is able to assert that there is no possibility of doubt or falsehood in the Khabar. It is actually this category of Hadith which has contributed to the greater part of our treasure of Hadith 
Gradation of Akhbar Ahad on the Basis of their Acceptance or Rejection  
    The author of "al-Kifayah" has graded the Akhbar-i-Ahad into three categories from the point of view of their being worthy of acceptance or rejection:  

    (a) Narrations the veracity of which is crystal clear.  
    (b) Narrations the factitious character of which is crystal clear.  
    c) Narrations the character of which we have not yet been able to determine.  
    Now let us elaborate on these.  
    (a) Narrations the Veracity of which is Crystal Clear: The author of "al-Kifayah" has assigned the top category to narrations which possess the following characteristics:  
    i) Narrations which are endorsed by human intellect and wisdom as geniune and which are readily acceptable to common sense.  
    ii) Narrations which aptly elaborate the immutable commandments of the Qur’an or Sunnah 
    iii) Narrations which have been accepted by the Ummah 
    It must be clearly understood that "acceptance by the Ummah" in this case signifies acceptance by that section of the Ummah which has not allowed itself to be influenced by religious innovations (bid`at) or blind-following (taqlid). The Prophet (sws) is said to have said:  

    A section of my Ummah shall invariably stick to verity. Whosoever tries to dissociate himself from them will not be able to harm them in any manner; so much so that when they will depart from this world, they will still be firm in their beliefs. (Muslim: Chapter 53)  

    (b) Narrations the Factitious Character of which is Crsytal Clear: The author of "al-Kifayah" has placed in the second category narrations that bear the following characteristics:  
    i) Narrations which are rejected by human intellect and wisdom.  
    ii) Narrations which are contrary to the immutable commandments of the Qur’an and Mutawatir Sunnah, or clash with them.  
    iii) Narrations which cover such important subjects that people require positive and precise information about them for guidance, but they do not provide such information; or narrations which are related to some important event and, therefore, should have been narrated by a sufficient number of narrators, but instead they are found to have been narrated by very few of them.  
In case of (`Umum-i-balwah) ie, where the situation calls for narrations from a number of sources), the Hanafites do not attach any importance to Akhbar-i-Ahad. In such matters, they generally prefer Ijtihad and Qiyas (analogical deductions).  
    c) Narrations the Character of which is not yet Determined  
    Third place in the classification has been allotted by the author of "al-Kifayah" to narrations which convey certain commandments of the Prophet (sws) that are found to be contradictory and, consequently, it is difficult to decide which version should be followed in actual practice.  
    In such cases, I am of the opinion that the wording of the narrations should be carefully scrutinized in the light of the immutable commandments of the Qur’an and Sunnah and other aspects, and then the most suitable narration be adopted.  


    Literally, the word ‘Sunnah’ means ‘a clear path’, ‘busy path’, ‘trodden path’, ‘beaten path’, ‘smooth path’, etc.  
    The manner in which the Almighty deals with nations -- and which holds true for all nations -- as been termed in the Holy Qur’an as the Sunnah of Allah. For instance:  

    It was the practice [approved] of God amongst those of old that have passed away. And the Command of God is a decree determined. (33:38)  

    Now are they but looking for the way the ancients were dealt with? But no change will thou find in  God's way [of dealing]: No turning off wilt thou Find in God's way [of dealing]. (35:43)  

    In the discussion which follows, we are going to discuss the Sunnah of the Prophet (sws). This means the way of life which the Prophet (sws) taught the people in theory and practice and for which, in his capacity as a teacher of Shari`ah (Islamic Law), he laid down ideal standards of leading a life which one should meet to earn Allah's approval through complete submission to His Commandments. This assignment was a necessary corollary to his status as a Prophet and has been mentioned in the Holy Qur’an as follows:  

    God did confer a great favour on the Believers when He sent among them a Prophet from among themselves, rehearsing unto them the Signs of God, purifying them and instructing them in Scripture and Wisdom, while before that they had been in manifest error. (3:164)  

    You have indeed in the Prophet of God a beautiful pattern [of conduct] for anyone whose hope is in God and the Final Day, and who engages much in the praise of God. (33:21)  

    No doubt, in every sphere of life we have before us ideal examples set by the Prophet (sws) for our guidance. Whatever Commandments and rules of conduct of Islam we are supposed to know and learn have been demonstrated by him for us through actual practice.  
    The view point of those who do not believe in the Sunnah viz that the role of the Prophet (sws) is simply that of a courier who delivers the post is absolutely baseless and nonsensical. The Prophet (sws) is not only the Messenger who delivered the Book to humanity, but is simultaneously a Mu`allim-i-Shari`ah (teacher of the Shari’ah) and Muzakki-i-Nufus, (purifier of souls). His entire life is the highest ideal for us, and we can cast our lives in a truly righteous and Islamic mould only if we follow in his footsteps in each and every sphere of life.  
Need for Sunnah  
    The religion with which we have been blessed by Almighty Allah through the Qur’an only lays down broadly the fundamentals for life. It does not embrace all the details of expositions thereof. Comprehensive education of the Ummah in the matter of details has been left entirely to the Mu`allim-i-Qur’an, the Prophet (sws) himself. The overall structure of Islam has been raised and completed through the Sunnah of the Prophet (sws). For instance, basic commandments with regarding prayers, fasts, pilgrimage, zakat and other obligations and rites have, no doubt, been laid down in the Holy Qur’an. However, there are no details mentioned on any of these subjects; so much so that the Qur’an does not even mention the details of such an extremely important matter as prayers, for example their timings, total number, and the number of rak`ats in each prayer. The same is true of all other modes of worship and of other commandments and laws. For instance, the Qur’an lays down the cutting of the hands as a penalty for theft. However, the details have been left to the Prophet (sws) to explain -- as what is the definition of `theft' with reference to the value thereof, or what is the point where the hand should be severed etc. Now if we rule out Sunnah as a source of Islam, we might acquire a good knowledge of its fundamentals, but we would remain ignorant of their practical version in the same manner as were the followers of the Din of Prophet Abraham (sws) during the pre-Islamic dark ages. Some of them had reclined against the walls of the Ka`bah and had cried out: `O, Allah, we know not the right way to worship You. If only we knew it, we would have done so accordingly'. This explains that it is but the Sunnah which elaborates the Qur’an. That is why the Prophet (sws) has observed:  

    I have been given the Qur’an and besides it, something similar to it. (Abu Da`ud, Kitab al-Sunnah, Ch 6)  

    Therefore, the Sunnah is binding on us as much as the Qur’an itself. Allah the Almighty appointed for us the Messenger for this very purpose so that the Qur’an does not remain ambiguous, but is revealed to mankind in a perfectly tangible and ideal form -- and by actually acting upon the word of the Book, the Messenger did just that.  
    We can see, therefore, that the relation between the Qur’an and Sunnah is that of the soul and the body. In other words, the soul or the spirit of the Qur’an is given, in the Sunnah of the Prophet (sws), a form for its display. Both go together to complete the splendid edifice of Islam. Take away any one of them, and the whole structure falls apart.  
Interrelation Between the Qur’an and Sunnah: A Natural Affiliation  
    The interrelation which has been established between the Qur’an and Sunnah by the Almighty Allah is not a casual matter. On the contrary, this is what is demanded by common sense and wisdom. Human affairs know no bounds and cannot possibly be confined to a single book. To cover everything, you need unlimited records.  
    Secondly, there are things in which it is not enough to teach them in theory alone. They must be demonstrated practically. Otherwise, simply imparting verbal education on such matters cannot be very fruitful. In fact, matters which call for practical demonstration can hardly be elucidated orally. It was for this mission that the Prophet (sws) was chosen, followed by a chain of Companions and later other luminaries held aloft the torch of the Din of Allah on earth. It is, therefore, very essential that the religious minded people devoted to spreading the light of the Din of Allah do their utmost to act upon the Sunnah of the Prophet (sws). They must be meticulous in this regard even in minor matters so that they can inspire others too to live up to the Sunnah of the Prophet (sws).  

The Sphere of the Sunnah  
    In this connection, it must be clearly understood that the Sunnah is purely related to the practical aspects of life, ie, actions which are a part of our daily lives. Matters which concern beliefs or issues of academic interest are outside its domain. For instance Sunnah has nothing to do with articles of faith, history, occasion for revelation of the Qur’anic verses, etc.  
The Sunnah is not Based on the Ahadith  
    The Sunnah has not been founded on Ahadith, which have an inherent prospect of either being right or wrong, as we have seen in the foregoing pages. On the contrary, it is based on the perpetual adherence of the Ummah to it. Just as the veracity of the Qur’an is proved by perpetuity in verbal adherence, likewise the veracity of Sunnah is equally proved by the Ummah's perpetuity in practical adherence to it. For instance, we have not adopted the prayers, pilgrimage etc, in all their details because a few narrators explained them to us, but we act in a particular manner because the Prophet (sws) acted accordingly. Thereafter, through him learnt the Companions, and through them learnt the followers of the Companions, and then the successors thereof learnt through the followers. In this manner, the later generations continued to learn through their earlier predecessors. In case, the narrative records also testify to this effect, it should be taken as additional testimony. However, if the narrations are found to vary in any manner, preference shall, in any case, go to the perpetual adherence to practice. If it is observed that in a certain case the Akhbar-i-Ahad differ from the Sunnah, reasons for variation shall be investigated. However, if the variation cannot be explained, we shall be obliged to give up the narrations, since in any case the latter are presumptive, whereas in comparison the Sunnah is a categorical reality.  
    The creed of the Malki School of Fiqh whereby they prefer the practice of the people of Madina to Akhbar-i-Ahad, is based on this very principle. They regard the practice of the people of Madina as a conclusive evidence and say `among us the Sunnah is like this'. The Hanafites, likewise, do not attach any importance to Akhbar-i-Ahad on problems which relate to `Umum-i-Balwah, and do so with the same principle in view.  
    We must bear in mind the fact that the perpetual adherence to practical issues by the Ummah means the practice of the Prophet (sws), that of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, and of the Companions of the Prophet (may Allah's blessings be upon them all). Says the Holy Prophet (sws):  

    Acting upon my Sunnah and the Sunnah of my Rightly Guided Caliphs is obligatory for you. (Ibn Majah, Ch 6)  

    This is the group which is, in fact, the mainstream of the Muslim Ummah. In our times, a very large section of the people have adopted practices which are evidently contrary to the Qur’an and Sunnah. They are all in the category of heretics. And with regard to heresy the Prophet (sws) has said that heresy is deviation, and this deviation leads to Hell-fire.  
A Question to Non-Believers of the Sunnah  
    Those who reject the Sunnah claim to believe in the Qur’an, and still deny the Sunnah. It is hard to understand their logic, since, as the Qur’an is proved by the verbal adherence of the Ummah, likewise the Sunnah is proved by the practical adherence of the Ummah. If these people reject the Sunnah, there is no justification to accept the Qur’an. There is hardly any difference in the credentials of either.  
    It is rather important that the difference between Hadith and Sunnah, elucidated in the foregoing pages, be kept in mind. When this difference was overlooked, the result was that the denial of a few Ahadith was construed to mean the denial of the Sunnah. Thereafter, whatever doubts were invented against the Hadith by the non-believers of Hadith were extended by them to deny the Sunnah as well, though the denial of the Sunnah is tantamount to denial of the Qur’an itself, as already explained.  
    Those who are familiar with the history of the denial of Hadith are fully aware that this mischief actually raised its head over a few Ahadith of anomalous nature. However, later on this matter turned into a hot-bed of debates; in the heat of arguments people lost sight of the difference between Hadith and Sunnah. In such battles of wits, the attacking party failed to realize what they were attacking; nor did the defenders knew what exactly they had to defend and wasted their energies on a different front. In their ignorance, either side ended up in a loss. The non-believers of Hadith stretched their doctrines so far as to touch the bounds of Kufr (disbelief), and the supporters of Hadith, on the other hand quite unnecessarily dragged the Sunnah as well along with the Hadith into the firing-range.  

In Any Practice the Sunnah can Vary  
    The common man appears to be unaware of the fact that in case of one particular issue there can be more than one Sunnah. Owing to ignorance on this point, the followers of Sunnah themselves are divided into different sects, and continue to accuse one another of disregarding the Sunnah. However, if they are fair to themselves in this regard, it should not be hard for them to comprehend that a Sunnah can vary on any single issue.  
    It has been narrated that on the occasion of his last pilgrimage to Makkah, the Prophet (sws) sat down at one place, and people started to approach him in the form of groups for guidance. Some one explained that he had acted on a certain issue in such and such manner. The Prophet (sws) replied that there was no harm in it. Another one observed that in a particular issue he had acted in such and such manner. The Prophet (sws) approved that action too. Likewise, people approached him one after the other and asked his opinion on the manner they had been acting on different matters; according to the narrations, the Prophet (sws) approved all the different ways of practice of the people and disapproved none.  
    Apparently the reason for this could only be that they must have all been acting within the sphere of the Sunnah. While carefully preserving the core and essence of a practice, if there happens to be some variation in its outward form, that practice cannot be said to have overstepped the limits of Sunnah 
    For instance the narrations with regard to Tashahhudd4 are all associated with Companions who were authorities on Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Although the wording of each one differs, the spirit underlying each is identical. Now supposing a person chooses to adopt that Tashahhud which is associated with Hadrat 'Umar or Hadrat 'Abdullah Ibn 'Umar, and does not adopt the one practised by Hadrat `Aishah or Hadrat 'Abdullah Ibn Mas`ud (May Allah's blessings be upon them), would it be justified if we declare his action contrary to the Sunnah? One can of course discuss, as a point of academic interest, the practice which might be preferred and the merits thereof. But how can one reject any of these practices as going against the Sunnah 
    To my mind, the same is the position with regard to the word Amen -- reciting the word Amen audibly and reciting Amen mutely during the course of prayers; or with regard to folding the arms below the chest or letting the arms down loose during the prayers. There is a possibility, even evidence, of these different practices being reckoned as the Sunnah. In fact, we do have arguments supporting their status as Sunnah. Owing to certain factors for which this is not the occasion for elaboration, some of these practices gained greater popularity than others at certain places. However, none of them can be set aside as being repugnant to the Sunnah. At the most, one can raise the question of the degree of emphasis being laid on a particular practice vis-a-vis others. But one just cannot deny it the status of Sunnah 

(Translated from Mubadi Tadabbur-i-Hadith by S. A. Rauf)



1. Hafiz Ibn Hajar has explained these different terms of Hadith as under: 
    Sahih: It is that Hadith the narrators of which are righteous, trustworthy and God-fearing persons of sound and dependable memory; it should be free from any apparent or latent blemishes; and should not be inclined to harbour opposition to those equally or more trustworthy persons compared to themselves. 
    Hasan: It is that Hadith  the narrators of which are of a slightly lower intellectual calibre than those of the Sahih, but otherwise fulfil all other conditions of Sahih
    Da`if: It is that Hadith which is contrary to Sahih or Hasan; or a link is missing in the chain of narrators, or a certain narrator in between is not found to qualify. 
    Mawdu`: It is that Hadith  the narrator of which is given to lies and falsehood. 
    Maqlub: It is that Hadith , in two different narrations of which the names of narrators have been changed. (Translator's Note) 
2. I have selected this book for reference because this is accepted as one of the fundamental books on the subject of Hadith . However, I have studied other books on the subject too. But in my opinion, this is the most important treatise on the principles of Hadith . I believe that other authorities also hold the same opinion. 
3. Khabar-i-Mashhur is that Hadith  which has been narrated in each period by three or more than three narrators. 
4. Tashahhud: is that part of a Muslim's prayers which is performed in a sitting position, with its specific recitation. (Translator's note)