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SUNNAH . In every "founded" religious tradition, maintaining proximity to the founder has been an important source of legitimacy and authority, just as arguments about how to establish that proximity have been a source of conflict. In the Islamic tradition, the word sunnah has been the focal point of such issues. A word with a very old history in the Arabic language, sunnah comes from a root that is concretely associated with honing or molding, with something firmly rooted, like a tooth (sinn ). Sunnah, by extension, came to mean habitual practice, customary procedure or action, norm, standard, or "usage sanctioned by tradition."

Early Evolution

Among pre-Islamic Arabs, sunnah had the force of what anthropologists would call "tribal custom," that is, the generally agreed upon "thing to do" in matters of piety, morality, and social activity. In fact, it was the sunnah of the prophet Muammad's Arab compeers that initially led them to reject him, since the habitual social and spiritual practices of their ancestors were incompatible with his vision and demands. And it was his reinterpretation of their sunnah that helped him win them over, for he "reminded" them successfully that what they took to be true tradition (polytheism, for example) was what modern scholars would call "invented tradition," and that the true sunnah of their ancestors was the same Abrahamic ethical monotheism that he was announcing, in that he called upon his listeners to fulfill Abraham's moral contract with the one God.

The Qurʾanic revelations themselves did not establish an unequivocal meaning for sunnah. They referred either to the sunnah of those of old (the wrongheaded customs of Muammad's Arab brethren) or to the sunnah (or sunan, pl.) of God, namely his punishment of that other sunnah. The Qurʾān's flexible usage of the word sunnah never disappeared, but sunnah quickly came to be associated with the exemplary, imitable, normative words, deeds, and silent approval of the Prophet himself, whose behavior was assumed to be consistent with all previous prophets. In the sense of Muammad's exemplary pattern, sunnah took on an extraordinarily positive coloration and a predominant place in Muslim piety. The sunnah of the Prophet (sunnat al-nabī) began to preempt tribal sunnah ; the new "tribe," the Muslims, acquired a new pattern of established practice. That development, along with the simultaneous revelation of the sacred text, the Qurʾān, through Muammad produced one of these dynamic paradoxes that have enriched the histories of all the major religions: the relationship between Muammad's roles as vehicle of revelation and as exemplar of the most important sunnah. Muammad was only a man, receiving but not authoring God's word. Yet that word was difficult to follow without its bearer's example and explication; the Qurʾān itself urged Muslims to follow God and his Messenger. Although the injunction not to deify Muammad was taken seriously, he was still a man set apart from others by his special intimacy with God and his role as the Seal of the Prophets. Some may also have attributed to him the special, magical powers they would have previously expected from any holy person. In his mission, Muammad was, more than many prophets, both messenger and exemplar, because he was a temporal as well as spiritual leader. There was always a thin line between emulation and veneration, between making him an ideal exemplar and dehumanizing him into a perfect man. One could imitate him, but not completely, because he was too special; but one could not make him so special that he was not human. Within this range, myriad authentic pious responses have flourished.

Furthermore, although scriptural religions have always developed sources of commentary that involve the founder, Muslims relied unusually heavily on Muammad. They produced a massive, multifunctional, multifaceted corpus of "news" or "reports" (adīth ) from the companions of the Prophet, whose humanness, though exceptional, had to be maintained. It is true that the adīth did not establish Muammad as an exemplar apart from his role as bearer of revealed truth; but, ironically, it was the very denial of his divinity that made him so imitable, that allowed personal details to accumulate to a level almost unmatched in the history of religion, with the possible exception of the personality of Mohandas Gandhi. Ironically, too, it may have been the very size of the corpus that not only encouraged selectivity but also promoted, and reflected, disagreement about the norms to be derived from it.

Sunnat al-nabĪ

In time, and especially under the pressure of practical necessity, the two parts of Muammad's mission coalesced into two separate oral and written bodies of texts: (1) revelation (way ), that is, divine word or Qurʾān; and (2) inspired prophetic example (sunnat al-nabī). The most common literary vehicle of the sunnat al-nabī, the adīth, functioned to maintain proximity to Muammad's sunnah in much the same way as the ayyām, a pre-Islamic literary form for preserving noble tribal exploits, had kept tribal sunnah alive. The early Muslim community, whose sunnah was based on that of Muammad, preserved the sunnat al-nabī through the memorization and transmission of adīth. Some Muslims said that sunnat al-nabī had been revealed along with the Qurʾān, as has sometimes been said of the oral law and the written law (Torah) in Judaism; others have even relied on sunnah more than on the Qurʾān.

The range covered by the sunnat al-nabī was as broad as that of oral law too: food and eating, manners, clothing and jewelry, hygiene and grooming, social behavior, forms of greeting, and etiquette, as well as weightier religious, political, or economic matters. Consequently, the sunnah of the Prophet and the early community came to play a major role in the development of the Islamic legal system (sharīʿah ) and systematic discussion about God (kalām ). (This usage of the term sunnah should not be confused with the technical sense in which it is also used within the sharīʿah for a certain level of permissibility of acts.)

Sunnah also came to function in various extralegal, extratheological ways. The quoting of adīth could have a performatory quality: the mere act of citing an apt adīth could help one manage a given situation or display one's piety. Through literary presentations of Muammad's life pattern, or sīrah, which also came to be the name of a biographical genre, the sunnah was spread even wider. The use of adīth as primary sources for the writing of historical narrative became common. Muammad's various roles, especially that of societal reformer, became paradigms for the behavior of many later leaders. At the popular level and especially among ūfīs (mystics), Muammad became the soul's guide and the perfect universal human, showing people how to behave in the presence of God; numerous poetic genres emerged to capture this side of him. Above all, the cultivation of the sunnat al-nabī, not just in legally binding matters but in the smallest details of mundane daily existence, took on the salvific quality present in orthodox Jews' observance of alakhah (law).

Until recently, most Western scholars have focused on the authenticity and reliability of these materials. There is an old academic tradition that views the adīth -based picture of the sunnat al-nabī as a post hoc creation of the second and particularly third centuries of Islam, when the major authoritative collections of adīth were compiled. More recent scholarship has argued that adīth emerged very early, in written as well as oral form, and that the very earliest Muslim community assumed sincerely that its sunnah was continuous with that of the Prophet.

Scholars have also disagreed about how closely to connect adīth and sunnah. Although the derivation of sunnah for legal purposes depended heavily on the study and explication of adīth, the two were not coterminous. The adīth were simply verbal reports, tens of thousands of them, about something Muammad said or did. They contained many, many potential norms or standards, but those had to be derived or actualized to have legal force. Some matters that were traditionally agreed upon as sunnah were contradicted by particular adīth or had no basis in adīth. Furthermore, individual Muslims could easily disagree with one derivation of a norm and prefer another or prefer one adīth to another or reject one and accept another. Finally, the adīth format came to be used for conveying all sorts of information not directly related to the life of the Prophet.

As the sunnah gradually acquired the meaning of the received, recognized, normative practice of Muammad and, to an extent, his companions, its opposite came to be represented by the word bidʾah (literally, "starting new," "innovation"). It first became significant as a critique of the behavior of the Marwanid caliphs (685750), who were seen to have deviated from the ideal of Muammad and his companions. Some Muslims always used the word in a negative wayto refer to something beyond the parameters of the acceptable. For others, bidʾah, like sunnah, can be good or badbad if it contradicted the accepted sunnah, good if it was consistent with it, even if not contained in it, and promoted the good of the community.

Western scholars often translate bidʾah as "heresy" when applied by Muslims to unacceptable religious practices and beliefs. However, "heresy" obscures the pragmatic bent of the Islamic tradition in favor of a dogmatic bent more appropriate to a tradition such as Christianity, which had, unlike Islam, institutionalized theological ways in order to judge and control deviation. The charge of bidʾah referred not so much to the content of beliefs as to their practical consequences; it was often made by rulers to reprove certain members of society and dissuade them from adopting socially appealing ideas that disrupted the status quo.

SunnĪ and ShĪʿĪ

During the first 120 years of Islamic history, disagreements emerged about how best to derive, understand, and be true to the Prophet's sunnah. Through a series of internal conflicts, sides and positions shifted frequently. By the time the Abbasid dynasty of caliphs overthrew and replaced the Umayyads (750), two major orientations had begun to crystalize, both of which were addressed by the Abbasid platform. For some, Muammad's unifying and lawgiving function was primary to his sunnah and would be best preserved if his community (jamāʾah ) were kept together at all costs, in two ways: (1) by providing a system of rules (sharīʿah ) as close as possible to those he brought, with a body of learned men (ʿulamāʾ ) to manage it; and (2) by providing a "nomocratic" leader (khalīfah ) who would "stay close" to Muammad by uniting the community physically, by guaranteeing its security, and by ensuring a proper Muslim environment through protection of the sharīʿah and its learned managers. Muammad's charismatic function would not be imitated by a person but, rather, routinized in the law.

Another group found proximity to Muammad in a different devicephysical descent. For them, maintaining proximity to his sunnah depended on recapturing his intimacy with God and his closeness to and divinely guided designation of a relative, his cousin and son-in-law ʿAlī, to succeed him. Although they too gathered adīth, established sunnah, and worked out shariah, for them it was all unusable without a continuation of the charismatic interpretation the Prophet had provided. They had sought, unsuccessfully, to provide the community with a theocratic ruler (imām ) who could incorporate the nomocratic functions of the khalīfah but whose legitimacy would not depend on doing only that. Muammad's charismatic function would not be duplicated by the imām s but, rather, transformed and kept alive by them on the basis of their special inherited inner skills.

Although affection for the family of the Prophet was diffused throughout the Muslim community, this group carried partisanship further. In their hearts and minds, certain descendants of the Prophet through his cousin ʿAlī (imām s) partook of Muammad's special qualities; yet they suffered and were frequently martyred at the hands of wrongful rulers. The passing over of ʿAlī for the caliphate the first three times it was awarded and the martyrdom of the third of their line, usayn ibn ʿAlī, at the hands of the fifth caliph, Yazīd (r. 680683), as well as subsequent misfortunes, predisposed them to support the Abbasids, who claimed to represent the innate right of the family of the Prophet over those who had usurped it.

However, after they came to power, the Abbasids rejected the special claims of this group, which had generally been known as the partisans (shīʿah ) of ʿAlī, in favor of the nomocratic style favored by the majority, who styled themselves "the people of the sunnah and the community" (ahl al-sunnah wa-al-jamāʾah ). Although the short form Sunnī stuck to them, as did Shīʿī to the others, nomenclature should not imply that only they were committed to sunnah and adīth as sources of knowledge. Rather, they established proximity to the sunnah by maintaining a consensual jamāʾah, whereas the Shi'ah stayed close to it by resisting the decisions of the misguided jamāʾah and by trying to substitute what they saw as a more profound, esoteric understanding and style of leadership.

Subtle interpretations aside, however, "Sunnī" came to stand, in different senses, for the majoritarian, mainstream, "orthoprax" style of Islamic piety, especially among those who adhered to it (more than 90% throughout history). By the time of the influential legal theorist and schematizer al-Shāfıʿī (d. 820), an unsystemic and sometimes imaginative derivation and use of adīth about Muammad's and his community's sunnah had become commonplace among the several early Jamāʿī-Sunnī "schools" of fiqh (jurisprudence), as had many other legal techniques. Simultaneously, intellectually important movements like Shiism and Muʿtazilī rationalism had developed modes of reasoning that downplayed the authority of a adīth -borne sunnat al-nabī.

Responding to these and other factors, al-Shāfıʿī sought to rationalize and circumscribe the legitimate roots or sources (uūl) of jurisprudential deliberation. These he limited to a hierarchy of four, each of which had a fixed relationship to the one(s) before: Qurʾān, sunnah, ijmāʿ, and qiyā s. The starting point had to be the Qurʾān. However, where the sunnah could explain or supplement revealed truth, it became a second source by virtue of a frequent Qurʾanic injunction, "Obey God and his Messenger." The sunnah had to be based on adīth traceable back to the Prophet himself or a companion through the supporting (isnād) of an unbroken chain (silsilah ) of reliable transmitters. Thus did al-Shāfıʿī solidify for Jamāʿī-Sunnīs Muammad's role as uniquely authoritative exemplar.

Furthermore, where the entire community, as represented by its learned men (ʿulamāʾ ), had reached consensus (ijmāʿ ), that too became law if it was consistent with the first two sources. In justifying the use of ijmāʿ, al-Shāfıʿī had recourse to a famous adīth, "My community will never agree on an error." Ijmāʿ sometimes sanctioned, for example, the Arab custom of male and female circumcision, which in turn came to be known as sunnah too. Finally, the ʿulamāʾ could make adaptive extensions of the first three sources by using personal judgment limited to analogy (qiyā s) to something in the other three sources. They were equipped to perform their functions not because they possessed any innate characteristics but because they had acquired, through devoted study of Qurʾān and adīth, the knowlege (ʿilm ) of what is right.

Deserving of comment is the relationship between this approach to adīth and sunnah and tradition, a word that is often used to translate them. Al-Shāfıʿī 's adīth -oriented approach was actually antitraditionalist. By insisting on the use of texts in the form of adīth that were traceable to Muammad, he was restricting the role "tradition" had been playing among legists because, by the second Islamic century, many things that had become "traditional" among legists had no textual base or were contradicted by the texts.

Al-Shāfıʿī 's approach should more properly be viewed as "textualist": he accepted practices not because they were customary but because they were documented. Not long after his death, the adīth began to be compiled into a series of six major authoritative collections. Although some of them may have reflected "traditions" in the narrower sense, the impact of this whole series of developments was to control the traditional in favor of what was based on a text and to undermine contemporary rulers' attempts to legitimize custom based on the court rather than sunnah based on adīth.

Emergence of schools

Gradually, four major Jamāʿī-Sunnī "schools" (sg., madhhab ; pl., madhāhib ) of law, all influenced by al-Shāfıʿī 's system, formed around the teachings of four leading early figures: Ahmad ibn anbal (780855), Mālik ibn Anas (715795), Abū anīfah (699767), and al-Shāfıʿī himself. Eventually, standardization set in to the point at which, by the fourteenth century, no further significant variation was anticipateda situation expressed by the phrase "the closing of the gate of ijtihād " (individual inquiry).

Sharīʿah -oriented Jamāʿī-Sunnism came to focus on the establishment of communal consensus and the maintenance of the public orderin worship, in marketplace behavior, or on the highways and frontiers. Judges (qāī s) judged what was brought to their attention, not what they ferreted out privately. Books of law focused on ritual obligations (summarized by the five pillarsconfession of faith, daily prayer, alms, fasting during the month of Ramaān, and pilgrimage to Mecca) as well as on family and personal status law and economic and political matters. This style of piety came to accept as ruler (khalīfah ) whomever the great majority of the community accepted and to define him as guarantor of physical security and provider of an atmosphere in which the sharīʿah could prevail.

Some Jamāʿī-Sunnīs also used adīth and sunnah as the basis for kalām (speculative discussion about God), although others viewed kalām itself as bidʾah, by virtue of its presumptuous attempt to prove what had already been revealed as true. By the eleventh century, two major adīth -oriented schoolsthe Māturīdī (named after Abū Manūr al-Māturīdī, d. 944) and the Ashʿarī (named after Abū al-asan al-Ashʿarī, d. 935)had won out over more rationalistic groups such as the Muʿtazilah. The Ashʿarīyah and Māturīdīyah emphasized emotional faith as opposed to the mere assent of intellectualized belief and relied on Muammad's own faith and the adīth that expressed it as the best guides. They favored an exoteric (āhirī ) style of reading the Qurʾān and adīth. Although they insisted on the unity of God, they accepted the existence of his attributes as mentioned in the Qurʾān, asserting that those attributes were not part of his essence. They emphasized that God exercised power over human action through continuous atomistic creation, though they did not remove the power of human choice altogether. They set limits on speculation by accepting many difficult Qurʾanic points outright, without regard to how they were true.


Despite the emphasis of Jamāʿī-Sunnīs on sharīʿah, they also began by the twelfth century to partake of mystical piety (Sufism), partly because of the accomplishments of al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), the kalām teacher and self-styled ūfī. Al-Ghazālī managed to make a place in Jamāʿī-Sunnī legalism for the more spiritualized, ineffable qualities of the ūfīs. Organized groups of ūfīs (arīqah s) of great scope and variety gradually appeared and expanded so that by the sixteenth century much if not most of the adult male Sunnī population may have belonged to one or the other of these groups.

Jamāʿī-Sunnīsm has been described as the "piety of solidarity." Its emphasis on the universal applicability and accessibility not only of the Qurʾān but also of Muammad's sunnah has promoted remarkable cultural homogeneity among the many diverse peoples who have come under the Islamic umbrella during the past fourteen centuries.

See Also

Caliphate; adīth; Imamate; Muammad; Nubūwah.


Two Arabic sources available in English translation give textured evidence for how the sunnah evolved: Alfred Guillaume's A Translation of [Ibn] Isāq's Sīrat Rasūl Allāh (1955; reprint, Lahore, 1967) is an early biography of Muammad that shows how accounts of his life and portrayal of his sunnah did not depend on adīth alone; Islamic Jurisprudence: Al-Shāfıʿī 's Risālah, translated by Majid Khadduri (Baltimore, 1961), offers a classic statement on the role of adīth in formulating sharīʿah.

Although many excellent works have been written about sunnah and adīth, William A. Graham's Divine Word and Prophetic Word in Early Islam (The Hague, 1977) is particularly useful. In this pathbreaking study, Graham argues that the role of Muammad's sunnah as a norm goes back to his own lifetime and that it developed much more continuously than past scholars have thought. Ignácz Goldziher's Muslim Studies, 2 vols., translated by C. R. Barber and S. M. Stern (Chicago, 1967), is an erudite study of various aspects of Islam and a good example of a legalistic approach to adīth and sunnah ; Goldziher tends to be skeptical about their reliability, however. The first chapter of volume 1 is especially useful. Another important work is Nabia Abbott's Studies in Arabic Literary Papyri, 2 vols. (Chicago, 19571967), a detailed study of early Islamic written texts. Professor Abbott includes evidence that adīth were committed to writing much earlier than scholars had previously argued. See also A. J. Wensinck's article "Sunna," in Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden, 1974); James Robson's "Tradition, the Second Foundation of Islam," Muslim World 41 (1951): 2233; and Josef van Ess's Zwischen adīth und Thëologie (Berlin, 1975).

For Shīʿī developments and approaches to sunnah and adīth, S. H. M. Jafri's The Origins and Development of Shiʿa Islam (London, 1979) is a solid chronological history of Twelver Shiism, with a good analysis of the Twelver attitude to and concern for sunnah. Marshall G. S. Hodgson's "How Did the Early Shiʿa Become Sectarian?" Journal of the American Oriental Society 75 (1955): 113, is a seminal article that manages to convey the fluidity of pre-Abbasid politics as well as the reasons for the consolidation of Twelver Shiism in the late eighth century.

On bidʾah, see D. B. Macdonald's article "Bid'a" in Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden, 1974), a brief survey with good basic information and unfortunately few nuances, and Bernard Lewis's "Some Observations on the Significance of Heresy in Islam," Studia Islamica 1 (1953): 4363, a more subtle interpretation of bidʾah than usual, in a nondogmatic context.

Marilyn Robinson Waldman (1987)

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