The Origin of the Sunnah

The Origin of the Sunnah

The Sunnah is a model pattern of behavior.  Ibn Mandhuur in his Lisaanu-l-Arab on the authority of at-Tahdhiibu-l-Lughah compiled by Abu Mansuur Muhammad bin Ahmad bin Azhar al Haraawī has defined the term sunnah in the following manner:  السُّنَّةُ  هِـيَ  الطَّرِيقَةُ  الْـمَحْـمُودَةُ  الْمُسْـتَقيمَةُ (the Sunnah is the commendable straight way).  And so the sunnah is a model behavior and an exemplary conduct which is followed by those who regard it as the most correct example of behavior without deviating to the right or to the left and without paying attention to any other way.

The original and primary meaning of the verb  سَـن (sanna) from which the word  سُـنّة  (sunnah) has been derived is he introduced; he set an example. Thus, the sunnah was an example that had been set or introduced.  From this concept came a secondary meaning he followed a trodden path .  It can be seen from that, that the original meaning for the word sunnah is a practice which was introduced and exemplified by a previous person or a former group of people as a way of behaving which became the most correct and normal behavior for the people who followed them.

The term سُـنّة اللّه (Sunnatu-l-laah) which has been used in the Qur’an in Surahs 33:38; 33:62 (twice); 35:43 (twice); 40:35 and 48:23 (twice) means the natural and moral law governing the rise and fall of nations of the world.  Both the verbal noun form سنة   (sunnah) and its verb form   سنّ (sanna) when applied as one of Allah’s actions or what is a manifestation of one of Allah’s actions means: He prescribed or manifested something.  This is further evidence that the original meaning of sunnah signified  something that is introduced rather than something that is followed .

Its second meaning, does not come from the first form root  verb سَـنَّ (sanna), but rather from its derived forms such as  اِسْـتَسَنَّ  ( istasannaa), تَـسَنَّنَ  (tasannana),  اِسْـتَـنَّ (istanna) all of which mean he followed .  From these verbs forms we are able to form a sentence with any one of the three verbs – for example:

اِسْـتَنَّ  سُنَّةَ  مُحَمَّدٍ – (istanna Sunnah Muhammad [He followed the Sunnah of Muhammad]) meaning: عَمِلَ بِهَا (ʿamila bihaa [He acted in accord with it]) or اِسْتَسَنَّ  بِصِرَاتِهِ  (istasanna bi ṣiraatihi [He followed his way or path]) meaning: اِتَّبَعَهَا (ittabaʿahaa [he observed, took heed, bore kept in mind (his duty) to follow the way, path or conduct of]) فُـلاَن فُـلاَن (fulaan fulaan [so and so]).  Therefore this second meaning for the word sunnah has come to mean model behavior, exemplary conduct or a set example and although someone can set a bad example or bad sunnah, if he desires it to be followed by others, he probably did not intend to set a bad example and in his mind he believes his behavior to be correct.  Thus, the word sunnah is always applied to positive intent although the outcome may be negative.

The phrase سنّة النبي (Sunnat-an-Nabii [Sunnah of the Prophet]), سنّة الرسول  (Sunnat-ur-Rasuul [Sunnah of the Messenger]) and سنّة محمّد (Sunnatu Muhammad [Sunnah of Muhammad]) do not appear in the Holy Qur’an.  The term which appears in the Holy Qur’an to describe the behavioral pattern of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم   is ‘uswatun hasanatun’ (an excellent example).  The word sunnah being used in connection with the Prophet  صلى الله عليه وسلم  seems to have originated from the Prophet himself صلى الله عليه وسلم .  In His last sermon delivered during his farewell pilgrimage to Makkah which is reported in the Muwatta of Imaam Maalik  as follows:

“Yahya related to me from Maalik  that he heard that the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم said, ‘I have left among you two matters.  You will never go astray if you hold fast to them: the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Prophet.’”

And so even though the phrase Sunnat-ur-Rasuul (Sunnah of the Messenger does not appear in the Holy Qur’an, it is clear that the concept of Sunnat-ur-Rasuul has been established since the beginning of the Prophet’s mission and the existence of a Sunnah that belongs to the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم and that is derived from his example is confirmed by the words of Allah the Most High

In the Holy Qur’an:

“Surely in the Messenger of Allah is ‘uswatun hasanatun’ (a good example) for you, who expect (to encounter) Allah and the Last Day.”

The Sunnah of the Prophet  صلى الله عليه وسلم is divided into three matters: سنة فعله  (sunnatu fiʿalihi [the sunnah of what the Prophet  صلى الله عليه وسلم did]), سنة قوله (sunnatu qawlihi [the sunnah of what he  صلى الله  يه و سلم said]) and سنة التقرير (the confirmed sunnah of what was done or said in his presence and he did not disapprove it).

This standard of conduct or Sunnah was not only practiced during the life time of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, but continued to be practiced after his lifetime.  The Ṣaḥaabah, the Tabiʿuun  and the Tabiʿu-t-Tabiʿiin continued to apply these fundamental principles in the early Madinan community on a more elaborate scale due to new and developing problems which confronted that ever expanding Muslim community.  As a result, the Sunnah of the Prophet began to take shape as ‘formal law’ (fiqh) and a ‘normative practice’ (ʿAmal) which was based on ‘the past practice’ (al-ʿamalu-s-saalif), and with the passage of time, two distinct and sometimes opposing views evolved concerning the process of deriving the Sunnah.  The first and earlier view was based on the idea that the on going behavioral practice of the Muslims was linked to the Sunnah of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم not only by oral traditions (ḥadiths), but also by the behavioral tradition (ʿAmal) going back to the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم  and the two generations that followed his.

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Published on July 13, 2010 at 00:50  Leave a Comment  

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