Sunnah: the Second Source of Guidance for Muslims
For Muslims, the Quran is the Holy Book revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) directly from Allah through the Angel Jibril (Gabriel). The Quran is the first source of guidance for a Muslim.
In addition to the Quran, the Sunnah is also a source of guidance all Muslims must follow. It is essential to living every day life. The Sunnah helps to clarify that which might be ambiguous or unclear in the Quran.
For example, the Quran commands a Muslim to offer formal prayers every day. The Sunnah provides the way in which the prayers are to be performed based on the instructions and the practices of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The Sunnah covers all aspects for the way a Muslim should deal with life from their private life to conducting business and governing community.
The Sunnah is comprised of thousands of ahadith (plural form of hadith). An hadith is a recorded practice or saying of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as well as members his family and his companions. These oral commands and practiced traditions create the Sunnah- the way of the Prophet of Islam.
When a Muslim does something according to what the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said or did, it is called sunnah. For example, if an hadith states that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said that when breaking a fast, a Muslim must consume three dates, and he ate three dates himself then it is sunnah to end a day of fasting that way.
For about 200 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the ahadith were carried on through oral tradition. During this time, a chain of narrators passed on the ahadith until several scholars began to compile them into written form.
The imams who collected the ahadith also worked through them thoroughly to validate their authenticity. The ahadith were classified into the following categories:
• Sahih – authentic
• Hasan – acceptable
• Da’eef – weak
• Mawdoo – fabricated
The weaker hadith are debatable based on whether or not their chain of narration is considered to come from a reputable source. The chain of narration includes the original source- the person who heard the words or witnessed the action of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Each recorded hadith begins like so: “Abu Hamzah Anas bin, who was the servant of the Messenger of Allah, reported that the Prophet, said…”
The credibility and characterization of a hadith as weak, strong or otherwise was based upon the narrator, not the actual tradition stated in the hadith.
To criticize an action or saying would be subject to questioning what the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) may or may not have done becoming wrongfully based on individual opinions. Instead, validating the authenticity of the narrator was used to make the determinations.
When a hadith is considered weak, some religious scholars may discount it as not part of the Sunnah or advise Muslims of a different type of action based on a stronger hadith. A weak hadith may be used in guidance on a matter, but in this case, an Imam should always explain why he is using it as evidence on a ruling.
There are thousands of ahadith and Muslims are encouraged to read and apply all of them to their daily lives. However, it can take years to read and memorize them all. Therefore, one can begin with Imam Nawawi’s Forty Hadith, a well known and widely accepted assembly of forty basic and critical ahadith that every Muslim should have basic understanding of.