Sunna Definitions and Distinctions

As a linguistic object and theological 'ground', the Arabic term sunna in Islam is both ancient and multivalent. Numerous definitions are available, both succinct and extended. A few will be offered and outlined here.

For example, a modern glossary to a translation of Malik's al-Muwatta' defines sunna (pl. sunan) as 'lit. a form, the customary practice of a person or group of people'.210 The lexicographer Hans Wehr understands the term to mean 'habitual practice, customary procedure or action, norm, usage sanctioned by tradition'.211 For Michael Cook, sunna is 'proper custom' or 'normative custom.'212 The Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam favours 'custom, use and wont, statute',213 while James W. Morris, in his English rendition of Ja'far b. Mansür al-Yaman's Kitab al-'Alim wa 'l-Ghulam, deploys such terms as 'accustomed way' in translating references to the sunna of God.214

However, one of the clearest definitions, which also distinguishes the term from hadlth, while not totally separating them, appears in the second edition of The Encyclopaedia of Islam:

Hadith (narrative, talk) with the definite article (al-hadith) is used for Tradition, being an account of what the Prophet said or did, or of his tacit approval of something said or done in his presence ... [While] Sunna (custom) refers to a normative custom of the Prophet or of the early community.215

The term sunna in the Qur'an is associated mostly with God's action rather than that of the Prophet Muhammad.216 Thus God has punished unbelievers in the past (e.g. Q.8:38, Q.33:62, Q. 35: 43), and this is His Sunna or constant practice. The sunnat Allah (practice of God) (see e.g. Q.33^8) is a powerful Qur'anic motif. The preferred word for 'the practice of the Prophet' in the Qur'an is uswa:217

Ye have indeed

In the Apostle of God

A beautiful pattern (of conduct) ... 218

La-qad kana lakum fi rasül Allah uswatun hasanatun...

Uswa can mean 'example, model, pattern'.219

It is clear that the pre-Islamic term, sunna, which originally meant 'customary action', together with the divine model cited above, was transferred at a later date under al-Shafi 'I (767-820) to the idea of the customary, good action of the Prophet220 and, later still, came to represent 'the all-encompassing concept orthodoxy, which is still in use today' and 'any laudable precedent'.221 And, under al-Shafi 'I, sunna became the second major source of law.222

The terms sunna and hadlth have a certain fluidity, but both technical terms have become virtually synonymous. Strictly speaking, 'where the term hadlth refers to a document, the term sunna refers to the usage described in such a document'.223 Both may be rendered as 'tradition/Tradition'.

The observance by the Islamic umma (community) of the sunna is the imitatio Muhammadis.224 Put another way (of which the great sufl philosopher Ibn al-'Arabl (1165-1240) himself might have approved!225), the hadlth is the bezel (fass) which holds or enshrines the sunna.

As a sign, then, the term sunna in Islamic Arabic signals at least four major areas of discourse, as may be seen from the above discussions: it alerts us via the Qur'an to Divine custom and precedent; it reminds us of jahili (pre-Islamic) tribal custom and precedent; it focuses the Muslim mind from an early period on the custom and precedent of the Prophet Muhammad; and it speaks of a desired 'orthodoxy' enshrined in communal (but by no means monolithic) custom and precedent, with all the developed and developing legal and theological implications of such established custom down the ages.

Sunna, then may be treated as an Object and a Sign, but it also belongs to the sphere of the sacred, in terms both of content and of respect and reverence. Hadith Nabawi (Prophetic Hadlth) transmitted the record of the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad himself; Hadith Qudsi (Sacred Hadlth) transmitted via Muhammad the 'meanings' of God's own further messages over and above the formal

Qur'anic record.226

For Muslims, 'tradition came to be considered second in authority to the Kur'an, but this was the result of a lengthy process'.227 The hadlth literature was constituted and canonised by the umma in six major collections, of which the Sahihan of al-Bukharl (810-70) and Muslim b. al-Hajjaj (817-75) achieved primary importance.228 So important did the sunna or tradition become that it served under al-Shafi 'I, the jurist who became known as the Father of Muslim Jurisprudence, not just 'to elucidate but to supplement the Qur'an's regulations, supplying the details needed to implement divine commands' and, going beyond this, addressing 'matters quite unmentioned in the Qur'an'.229

Muslim reverence for Islamic Tradition has been unswerving since the days of al-Shafi 'I. The famous collector of traditions, al-Nawawl (1233-77), is typical in his lauding of the sunna as that which 'enlighten[s] spiritual guides'230 and he includes in his collection of forty a hadlth (No. 28) in which the Prophet counsels: 'Verily he among you who lives [long] will see great controversy, so you must keep to my sunna and to the sunna of the rightly-guided Rashidite Caliphs' [Fa-'alaykum bi-sunnati wa sunna al-Khulafa' al-Rashidin al-Mahdiyin].231

This does not mean that the reliability and authenticity of the tradition literature has not been challenged at various times, both within and without Dar al-Islam. Such challenges have been perceived as malicious attempts by allegedly 'renegade' Muslims, or by Western orientalists such as Ignaz Goldziher and Joseph Schacht,232 to undermine the objective reality of the content of the tradition literature, to suggest that some - or even much - of the matn (the content) of the tradition literature should no longer signify a worthy example to be followed; and to desacralise that which is held to be second only to the Holy Qur'an itself in sacredness.

Now, this volume is not concerned specifically with the issue of the reliability and authenticity per se of every part and facet of the tradition literature. It notes, however, the way in which religious authority may be weakened, especially in the field of law, when undue reliance is placed on 'suspect' hadlth texts for legal articulation and implementation. While one should not press the comparison too far, the authority of sunna and the authority of papal encyclicals down the ages - inasmuch as both focus on, or are vehicles for, tradition/Tradition - provide an interesting field for speculation and analysis.233

What is of profound interest for this volume is the dominant role achieved in the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries by both Qur'an and Tradition, and the uses and abuses of ijtihad (independent judgement). In Christianity, Scriptural Text, tradition/ Tradition and Magisterium perform a valuable phenomenological, semiotic and sacral function. The same is true, as we have shown, for Qur'an and Sunna in Islam. The use, and interpretation, of both is vital in our analysis of what we have characterised as 'The Traditional Imagination'.

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