10.1 The meaning of Hadith and Sunnah
According to the Qur’an, hadith means ‘story’, ‘news’, ‘report’ or ‘narration’ and it is used in the Qur’an a number of times in these senses. In practice, the word hadith, to most people calling themselves Muslim, means the reported sayings and practices of the Prophet. The operative word here is ‘reported’. The Hadith literature was collected by word of mouth, about 250 years after the death of the Prophet. The Hadiths -“ as the Hadith literature is commonly called – can be classified roughly in four categories:
- What the Prophet said.
- What the Prophet did.
- What the Prophet silently approved of, in others.
- Hadiths which give descriptions of what the Prophet was like.
On the question of sunnah:
Sunnah according to the Hadith means the laws that have been derived from the Hadith literature based on the reported teachings and practices of the Prophet. In total contrast, according to the Qur’an Sunnah means the ‘The Law and Practice of Allah which is immutable or unchangeable.’
(48:23) “Wa lun tajida li sunnat illah tabdila“. A few other verses in which the word Sunnah appears are given below.
(33:62) […]never will you find any change in Allah’s way [sunnah]!
35:43) […]no change will you ever find in Allah’s way [sunnah]; yes no deviation will you ever find in Allah’s way [sunnah]
This contradiction between the Qur’an and the Hadith regarding the question of sunnah can be resolved easily if we understand the position of the Prophet vis-a-vis the Qur’an.
The Qur’an is ‘the Word of Allah’ which was uttered by the Prophet as it was conveyed by him to the world under the inspiration of the Revelation. Thus, in effect, the Qur’an is the ‘utterance’ or ‘the sayings of the Prophet’ in a way which nothing else can claim to be. Given this, any attempt to distinguish between the two (i.e. between the word of Allah and the sayings of the Prophet) is impossible. It is impossible, since the Qur’an is, by common consent, both. It, the Qur’an, is the point where they (the Word of Allah and the utterance of the Prophet) beyond doubt, converge. From this understanding, and on this basis, we are equipped to receive the only logically sustainable explanation of the call in the Qur’an ‘to follow the Prophet’. That is, we are being asked to follow that which the Prophet is giving us, i.e. the Qur’an and the teachings it conveys. We must understand that ‘to follow the Prophet’, as stated in the Qur’an is an imperative to follow what was inspired in him through revelation. This exhortation has no connection whatever with the sayings and practices (the Hadiths) which were attributed to Muhammad by people some 250 years later, and primarily collected by word of mouth.
The Hadiths frequently contradict the Qur’an, and that in itself is proof enough that they have nothing to do with the Prophet. In addition – and to the surprise of many Muslims who use the term frequently and unthinkingly – the only sunnah that is mentioned in the Qur’an is Allah’s sunnah, and we are told that it never changes. Allah’s sunnah – or way – is fixed and encompasses His Laws and Practices which apply to all His creation. Such is Allah’s sunnah.