The history of Ahadith and their compilation is a long and tedious investigative process far too grand to be encapsulated within the short pages of this article. Therefore the attempt will be to try to clarify misunderstood concepts and to summarize the understanding of Sunnah and Ahadith better.
The terms Sunnah and Hadith have been, wrongly, amalgamated. Typically when one or the other word is being referenced, its true meaning is taken for granted as if it is inseparable from the other word. This has not only caused confusion, but has created this ideology that one depends on the other in order to complete what the Qur'an has not mentioned in regards to religion. This is a fallacious presumption. In order for the reader to appreciate the difference and their affects, a thorough study of the subject should be undertaken. Nevertheless, this article shall be an attempt to clarify the terms and their functions in a clear and simple manner.
In trying to analyze Ahadith a comprehensible and simple definition must be arrived at. In the simplest of definitions a Hadith is a reported tradition. Yet, in Islamic terms its scope is narrowed to very sensitive terminology affecting the overall scheme of Islamic doctrine. Hadith, as defined by Understanding Islam, is a narration of the words or acts of the Prophet, as perceived and transmitted by one or more persons who heard or saw the Prophet saying or performing these acts. These attributed perceptions to the Prophet are critical in developing the clear distinction of Sunnah from Hadith. The reader may examine this by a short example:
A teacher teaches with words and actions in a classroom setting. Students A, B, C, learn from this teacher but they were not allowed to write anything down. The teacher is out of the picture yet the students pass on the teacher's material to the next generation of students (D, E, F, G, H, I). Thereafter the classroom size grows and A, B, C no longer are around to teach so D, E, F, G, H, I teach the next set of students which is growing rapidly. The cycle of students becoming teachers developed through the generations. However, new ideas began to spring up and were made out to be of the original teaching. So, another student (X) decides to take the initiative to gather all the teaching of words and action to verify and compile them for the masses.
The above narration is a crude illustration of the process of how Ahadiths were compiled. Although this magnificent feat was achieved, many potential problems arose along with the compilation of these traditions. Other than the most obvious problems that one may observe there are several that are not as easily decipherable. For example, the context and setting of many Ahadith are missing. The Prophet may have well passed an injunction on something but the very important factors of the framework are not clearly understood. The lack of background information may throw the entire situation into confusion. Even if those who have transferred the information do it to their best ability, there are still potential dangers. The traditions as received and understood by one or more persons is important. The meaning that each individual has placed upon the words may "color" the transmission. A word may be left out or replaced. If this were not the case the great compilers would not have had to sift through hundreds of thousands of Ahadith. Some authentic ones may have been discarded while some not so authentic ones may have been compiled. Ahadith, though the science of their collection is far more sophisticated, is basically a written history of events. This in no way belittles the compilers or the Ahadith themselves nor the subjects they refer to but rather puts them in perspective to their nature and their importance in Islam.
The Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad was established during his life for all to follow and to pass on for generations. The Sunnah is the second primary source of the doctrine of Islam, the Qur'an being the first. They go hand in hand to complete the beliefs and practices all Muslims are to follow. However, the question arises, "what is Sunnah?" The Sunnah is a set of practices that the Prophet taught the Muslims to follow. For twenty-three years, five times a day, he showed them how to purify themselves for payer (ablution, Wudu). For the same amount of years and the same number of times a day, he showed them how to pray. He showed them to eat with their right hands, and invoke God's name and blessings upon the food and to thank God when finished. For a number of years he taught them to perform the pilgrimage (Hajj) and all its details and many other things that Muslims do now as if it is second nature. It was not what he ate or how he ate, nor was it what he dressed in or what he preferred that became Sunnah. It was the belief and conviction in the One God that became manifest in these practices which is the Sunnah. It was a code of practice limited to what God has ordained for humankind for all time. These set of practices were passed on through generations without the problems faced by Ahadith. There is no perception problem, or lack of context placement. There is not an individual that may mislead (whether purposefully or innocently) the rest of the chain from himself on. There is no confusing a certain practice as that taught by the Prophet with that taught by someone else. The Prophet was teaching the Sunnah of Islam to multitudes of people observing. It may have begun with ten who observed, then a hundred who followed, then thousands all observing the same practice over and over again, directly from the Prophet. This has remained a phenomenon to this day. A man praying in the United States of America does just the same as one who prays in Pakistan, thus following the very prescribed practice of the Messenger of God. To illustrate better the writer shall share a personal story.
I had always loved religion from the time when I was a child. It just fascinated me. I used to watch several of my family members pray and wanted to learn from them. My grandfather one day decided to take me to the local Mosque. I must have been only 3 or 4 years old at the time. He showed me how prepare for prayer and how to perform the ablution. We walked across the street and he proceeded to tell me to just follow what everyone else is doing. He said, in time, I would get better and the more we went together the more I would learn. When we got to the Mosque we took off our shoes to sit and listen to the imam. Then prayer began and I tried to follow by watching from the corner of my eyes, sometimes turning my head to see better what was going on. When we were finished we went home and my grandfather told me he was going to teach me a chapter of the Qur'an called the Opening (Al Fatiha). I became excited and agreed. So we began and I kept repeating the words over and over and over again. My grandfather then lay down and closed his eyes and said, "repeat!" So, I kept on going. Every time I made the slightest error he would correct me with the right words. He fell asleep and I too may have fallen asleep in the middle of reciting the words. My grandfather was an illiterate man and so was his father and his father's father and so on. They were religious and they passed down the religion to my father who is highly educated and in turn was taught to us.
The narrative is not an attempt to achieve an emotional response. It is an attempt at illustrating how the religion of Islam is passed on. Most Muslims learn their religion by following someone. By learning through example. The initial introduction of Islam to the generations of Muslims regards the passing on of the beliefs in the Qur'an and the practice of Sunnah. All other sources are almost always something pursued later on in life. This is a mere fact of history.
Sunnah and Hadith, therefore, are completely two different elements within Islamic doctrine. Sunnah was initiated by the Prophet for his Ummah to follow, while the latter, Hadith, was initiated by great men who wanted to preserve information about the events and incidents in the Prophet's life. It is a fact of history that the Prophet discouraged the recording any of his words so that they may not be confused with the transmission of the Qur'an, which was the primary mission of the Prophet. Had the Prophet felt that an essential part of his teachings would be lost if all Hadiths were not recorded then surely he would have ordered them to be written down by official scribes, just as there were official scribes of the Qur'an. It is obvious that the Prophet would then have taken some preparatory action to develop these Hadiths under his direct supervision. However, this is not what happened; the entire scheme of bringing Islam to the world was perfectly conveyed through the two primary sources of Islam, the Qur'an and Sunnah. To say otherwise would be tantamount to claiming that the Prophet failed to complete the doctrine as was revealed to him by God.
There are some, with slanderous intentions, who charge that those outside the realm of Islam concoct these explanations but they fail to provide any such evidence. They have elevated Ahadith, by invoking the term Sahih, to the status of the Qur'an and make it seem as if Islam is dysfunctional without these traditions. That is the same stance the Jewish tribes took when they developed their Talmud along with other books and many Christians with their churches. It is the responsibility of the Muslim Ummah to preserve both primary sources of Islam, the Qur'an and Sunnah, and maintain their religion as was transmitted by the Prophet through the generations.
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Hadith and Sunnah - Two Different Concepts