I have read your articles on the difference between Sunnah and Hadith. Please clarify the major difference between the transmission between Sunnah and Hadith. After all, the Prophet (PBUH) is not present with us. Therefore, his actions are “reported” to us through the same channels as his words are. The practice of the Ummah is obviously based on the communication received through the same sources as Hadith.
If we need to rely on the same criteria and sources of communication for Sunnah as we do for Hadith, why Sunnah does not have similar variations and differences as we find in Hadith? Whether it is an action of the Prophet or his word, the channels of communications are the same, if I understand correctly. Why then theÂ same channels reporting Hadith have so much variation compared with the Sunnah?
Finally, one more time, please help me understand that if the sources, channels and the people reporting to us the actions of the Prophet and his words, why Sunnah is considered a more authentic source of Islam and not the Hadith?
May Allah reward you for your efforts. Aameen.
There are a few differences between Sunnah and Hadith, due to which the two sources of information cannot command the same importance or reliability in the transmission of the Shari`ah. These differences are summarized (in one of our earlier responses) as follows:
In contrast to the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the Prophet (pbuh), generally, did not encourage people to record and transmit his sayings entailed in Hadith. The work of narrating and subsequently that of compiling these narratives was done, not because of any directive of the Prophet (pbuh) to the effect, but by the respective people, on their own accord.
The more well known and respected among the companions of the Prophet (pbuh) did not consider the reporting, the compilation and the transmission of Hadith to have any religious significance1. Had that not been the case, there would predictably have been an active effort on their part to collect the scattered sayings ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh) and they would have compiled the authentic and the correct among these sayings in a volume.
In contrast to the transmission of the Qur’an and that of the Sunnah2, Hadith has been transmitted by only one or a few persons in each generation.
In contrast to the transmission of the Qur’an and that of the Sunnah, the transmission of Hadith is critically dependant on not only the correct understanding and perception of the narrators but also their correct and unblemished reporting of that saying or incident. This really implies that even if the chain of narrators comprises of absolutely reliable, honest and intelligent individuals – even those of the caliber of Abu Bakr and Umar (ra) – one can still not be certain about the accuracy of the reported incident or saying. We know that even the most honest, reliable and intelligent individuals are prone to making mistakes in understanding as well as in narrating their understanding.
The variance in the standards of the various scholars and compilers of Hadith relating to the acceptability of a narrative as correctly ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh); their mutual differences in the strictness of the application of these standards; their compromises and variations in accepting narratives, which did not fully meet their standards; and their understanding and interpretation of the Qur’an and the text of the reported narratives is in itself an evidence that the work of these compilers and scholars, like that of the Muslim jurists, is based on their own particular interpretation, understanding and appreciation of the problem and should, therefore, not be given divine sanctity. Matters relating to human understanding and the application of such understanding are always open for discussion as well as difference of opinion3.
If you consider each of these points closely, you shall see that Hadith, in contrast to the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh), due to the factors inherent in its transmission overtime cannot be considered an independent source of the Islamic Shari`ah4.
It is quite obvious that if Hadith was to be placed as an independent source of the Islamic Shari`ah, the Prophet (pbuh) would have made the same arrangement of teaching and securing his sayings as was made for the Qur’an and the Sunnah, so that no part of the Shari`ah was left at the understanding of the narrators of Hadith or at the criteria of the various Muhadditheen. It is also quite predictable that if Hadith was considered by the companions of the Prophet (pbuh) as an independent source of the Shari`ah, the more accomplished and the more well-known among the companions of the Prophet (pbuh) would have made special arrangements for the collection and recording of the narratives of the Prophet (pbuh). In the same manner as the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh), had Hadith been an independent source of the Islamic Shari`ah, its transmission would have been in an uninterrupted perpetual chain from one generation to the other; it would obviously not have been transmitted overtime by scattered individual narratives in each generation. Furthermore, had Hadith been an independent source of the Shari`ah, its transmission to the subsequent generations would not have been left to the understanding, perception and consequent reporting of individuals, which always entailed chances of errors and mistakes. Finally, had Hadith entailed an independent and essential element of the Shari`ah, the Prophet (pbuh) would then have left an official corpus of Hadith with his companions and would not have left the acceptance or rejection of any given Hadith at the discretion and understanding of later scholars and Muhadditheen.
These, in my opinion, are some of the major differences in the transmission of the Qur’an and the Sunnah and that of Hadith, which evidence the fact that Hadith, with all the invaluable information that it might entail, was never delivered by the Prophet (pbuh) as an independent source of the Islamic Shari`ah.
November 20, 2000
- As they had done in the case of the Qur’an and the Sunnah. [↩]
- The transmission of the Qur’an and the Sunnah is not dependant upon the understanding and perception of individuals. Firstly, the transmission of the Qur’an and the Sunnah is not the transmission of one’s understanding of a particular verse of the Qur’an or of an action of the Prophet (pbuh), but is actually the transmission of the very words of the Qur’an and the very words of the Prophet (pbuh). [↩]
- The mere fact that the work of compilation of narratives ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh), continued even after such legendry works as “Sahih Bukhari“ and “Sahih Muslim“ is in itself an evidence that these works were not considered as final words, even by the contemporaries of these great Muslim scholars or by those, who immediately followed them. [↩]
- There is no doubting the fact that Hadith is one of the primary sources of the life, times, general teachings and general practices of the Prophet (pbuh) as well as the prevalent socio-religious and socio-moral environment. It is indeed the primary and the most authentic source of the Seerah of the Prophet (pbuh) as well as that of Muslim history of the time of the inception of the Muslim Ummah. [↩]