The Sunnah or Hadith is the second and undoubtedly secondary source from which the teachings of Islam are drawn. Sunnah literally means a way or rule or manner of acting or mode of life and Hadiths are teachings or messages conveyed to men either through hearing or through revelation. In its original sense, the Sunnah indicates the doings and Hadith indicates the sayings of the Holy Prophet (Pbuh); but in effect, both cover the same ground and are applicable to his actions, practices and sayings. Hadith being the narration and record of the Sunnah contains, in addition, various prophetical and historical elements.
There are three kinds of Sunnah. It may be a qaul – saying of the Holy Prophet (Pbuh) which has a bearing on a religious question, a fil-an action or a practice of the Prophet (Pbuh) or a taqrir –his silent approval of the actions or practices of others. We have now to consider to what extent can teachings of Islam, its principles and its laws, be drawn from this source. Any student of the Qur’an will see that the holy Book generally deals with the broad principles or essentials of religious matters, going into details are very rare cases. The details were generally supplied by the Holy Prophet (Pbuh) himself, either by showing through his activities how an injunction shall be carried out, or by giving an explanation in words.
The Sunnah or Hadith of the Holy Prophet (Pbuh) was not, as is generally supposed, a thing where of the need may have been felt after his death, for it was as much needed in his lifetime. The two most important religious institutions of Islam, for instance, are the Prayer and Zakat; yet when the injunctions relating to the Prayer and Zakat were delivered, and they are repeatedly met with both in Makka and Madina revelations, no details were supplied. Aqimus salat (keep up prayers) is the Qur’anic injunction and it was the Holy Prophet (Pbuh) himself who by his own actions gave the details of the service. Atuj Zakat (pay & the alms) is again an injunction frequently repeated in the Holy Qur’an, yet it was the Holy Prophet (Pbuh) who gave the rules and regulations for payment collection. These are but two examples; but since Islam covered the whole sphere of human activities, hundreds of points had to be explained by the Holy Prophet (Pbuh) by his examples in action and word, while on the moral side, this was the pattern which every Muslim was required to follow. (Sura Ahjab: Ayat-21). The men who embraced Islam stood in need of both the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah.
The transmission of the practices and sayings of the Holy Prophet (Pbuh) from one person to another thus became necessary during the Prophet’s (Pbuh) lifetime. In fact, the Holy Prophet (Pbuh) himself used to give instructions with regard to the transmission of what he taught. Thus, when a deputation of the tribal of rabi’ah came to wait upon him in the early days of Madina, the Holy Prophet (Pbuh) concluded his instructions to them with the words: “Remember this and report it to those whom you have left behind.” (Mishkat). Similar were his instructions in another case: “Go back to your people and teach them these things.” (Bukhari 3:25). There is another report according to which on the occasion of a pilgrimage the Holy Prophet (Pbuh) after enjoining on the Muslims the duty of holding sacred each other’s life, property and honour, added: “He who is present here should carry this message to him who is absent.”
(Bukhari.3:37). Again, there is ample historical evidence that whenever a people embraced Islam, the Holy Prophet (Pbuh) used to send to them one or more of his missionaries who not only taught them the Holy Qur’an but also explained to them how the injunctions of the Holy Book were to be carried out in practice. It is also on record that people came to the Holy Prophet (Pbuh) and demanded teachers who could teach them the Qur’an and the Sunnah: “Send us men to teach us the Qur’an and the Sunnah.” And the companions of the Holy Prophet (Pbuh) knew well that his actions and practices were to be followed, should no express direction be met with in the Holy Qur’an. It is related that when Muaz ibn Jabal (Ra), on being appointed Governor of Yaman by the Holy Prophet (Pbuh), was asked how he would judge cases and his reply was: “By the Book of Allah.” Asked what he would do if he did not find a direction in the Book of Allah, he replied: “By the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah (Pbuh)” (Abu Daud 23:11). The Sunnah was, therefore, recognised in the lifetime of the Holy Prophet (Pbuh) as affording guidance in religious matters.
The writer is an Islamic thinker and former Director, Islamic Foundation, Bangladesh